Monday #42: Open Up

This week marks the beginning of the end for most of the K-12 students here in NJ. Summer vacation is right around the corner and, barring overbearing summer homework requirements, most of our children will be slipping into their summer play mode. As someone who conducts professional development sessions for teachers, I’m getting ready to show teachers ways that they can access their own play mode at an upcoming Educator’s Institute that I am co-hosting, August 7-8. It’s a two-day, hands-on workshop based event featuring a playful literacy specialist named Leah Mermelstein and a lively storyteller named Gerald Fierst. You can find out all about this event and the work I do in professional development at my other site, Teaching Out Of The Box.

I’ve talked quite a bit about play here on this blog and my colleague and I will be approaching this annual event with a playful take on ways to integrate creativity into the standards-driven curriculum, with ideas that are bolstered by the latest brain research. Talking about play and creativity is very subject to a “preaching to the choir” scenario and we realize the need for real data when it comes to influencing classroom practices under the watchful eye of i-dotting, t-crossing administrators. Fortunately (and unfortunately, as the circumstances may be) recent slashes to arts programs in schools all across our country are prompting leading social scientists and brain experts to collaborate on some real, data-driven research on how we learn and what is important as far as play goes. Dr. Stuart Brown’s book, Play, in my opinion, is a clarion call to keep our schools, workplaces and lives more playful, thereby increasing innovation, happiness, intelligence and personal resiliency. Are you a teacher? I’ve mentioned it before, but Brown’s book should be required summer reading. Get it.

Today, however, I’m passing along some rather un-scientific data on play and creativity from one of the masters of both, John Cleese. I ran across this lecture from 1991 where Cleese outlines his 5 Factors Toward Creativity. His premise is that true creativity is achieved only in what he calls the “Open Mode.” The Open Mode is where we get the really good ideas, where we problem solve and put novel combinations of stuff together. Open Mode is in contrast to the Closed Mode in which we actually operate most of the time–it’s the mode that governs our day to day and makes doing small, tedious tasks possible. Closed Mode, for most people, is ironically the most comfortable and we will tolerate it longer because it actually makes us feel better in many ways and makes decision making easier. According to Cleese, the way to get into Open Mode is through playfulness. The lecture clip is clever and threaded with Cleese’s signature humor and if you have a spare 14 minutes I would highly recommend having a look see, however, here are Cleese’s abridged 5 Factors for you so that you can start being more creative right away:

  1. Space: Playfulness, which leads to creativity, cannot happen under pressure. Finding a space where we can be undisturbed by the day to day pressures of life is the first factor necessary in becoming more creative. Because life is so full of tedium, finding a space to escape this can be a tall order but it must be done.
  2. Time: We must ensure that the space we’ve created for getting into Open Mode is protected by time, that it will exist for a specific period of time, allowing our minds the opportunity to quiet down (approximately 15-30 minutes) and the chance to get into open mode for an appropriate duration (about 1 hour at least). Find your space and then block out your time.
  3. Time: Because Cleese believes that TIME is such an important factor, he lists it twice but distinguishes the second factor of time from the first by defining what it feels like to be inside that moment of time. While we might be tempted to interrupt our own carved out time, we must resist making that phone call, sending that text, surfing the web or letting out minds get back to Closed Mode. Likewise, utilizing all the time rather than grabbing a faster, easier solution will lead to better ideas, even when it might feel more comfortable to take an earlier solution. Giving the mind uninterrupted time, says Cleese, is giving the mind the opportunity for true originality. Furthermore, Cleese encourages us to ask ourselves this question: When does this decision HAVE to be made? Know the deadline and take the full amount of time you possibly can.
  4. Confidence: The fear of making a mistake is the biggest potential thwart we have to any creative endeavor. The essence of playfulness is an openness to whatever happens and a willingness to believe that, within creativity (or Open Mode), there is no such thing as something that is illogical or wrong. In factor 4, Cleese echoes what I touched on last week in “Carpe Diem,” with Goethe’s philosophy that boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. When we have the confidence to move forward into the unknown, it means that we increase our likelihood of solving a problem in a new, un-thought-of way that is better than any way we already know. Personally, I think confidence is probably the hardest factor to internalize for those who have, perhaps, lived a life in which they have not nurtured their own sense of confidence and self-worth but often the “fake it til you make it” strategy is one that can begin us out on the right foot so there’s really no excuse.
  5. Humor: If you have been around this blog for any amount of time you know I’m a big fan of humor and, obviously, for someone like John Cleese, humor is going to loom large in his view of what is important. Indeed, he states right off the bat that he believes humor is the single most, fastest way there is to get from Closed to Open Mode. He says, and I agree, that there are rare moments that humor cannot be used to great effect and with effective outcomes, even when–and especially when– these moments can be defined as serious. He reminisces about some of the most poignant memorials he’s been to, noting them for their inclusion of a sense of humor and then draws a difference between serious and solemn, although he questions whether there is truly any situation that needs to be solemn. I think humor can be one of the most misunderstood facets of an individual’s personality but one of the truest ways to deal with our own flawed human natures.

Play, says Cleese, is distinct from ordinary life by virtue of its locality and duration and this is why it’s so important to give it the space and time to exist. Its main characteristic (and even children know this) is that play has a beginning and an end or it is not defined as play. In a playful Open Mode, we are more likely to tinker with possibilities than jump to conclusions or make snap decisions. Our ideas will be more alive and original and, when we take these moments to be open, we will bring a much needed creative balance to our day to day lives.

TRY THIS WEEK: Find a space and a time to play.


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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