loader loader


October 26, 2015

By Neal Moore

As I write this, using the note-taking app Evernote, I can’t help but be distracted by the growing number of to-do lists running down the left-hand side of the composition window.  That’s not a growing to-do list, singular, but growing to-do lists plural.  I have one for business, one for personal, even one for books and films I want to see because I know I should but whenever I have the time I’m usually so tired I just flick on something familiar.

My other eye, the one not focused on my laptop, keeps wandering like Professor Moody’s mad one, over to my iPhone where little red discs glare at me, reminding me of just how many messages I have yet to read let alone respond to.  This, unfortunately, is not unusual for me nor, I suspect, you and it’s the reason that this year’s Content Marketing World keynote, John Cleese, urged the audience build a tortoise enclosure.

For those that don’t know (millennial much?) John Cleese was one of a troupe of comic geniuses that wrote, produced and performed in groundbreaking sixties sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Why groundbreaking?  Because their combination of the silly and the surreal was a revolutionary leap forward for comedy that still draws audiences and admiration today.  If you’ve not seen any of the sketches or films you will no doubt have heard the quotes: “Now listen here, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”,  “It’s just a flesh wound”, “THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!” etc…

After Monty Python disbanded Cleese went on to produce another comic masterpiece, the short lived but highly influential Fawlty Towers, a sitcom about a snobbish seaside hotelier named Basil Fawlty who became the foundation for other comic anti-heroes including Victor Meldrew, David Brent and even Frasier Crane.


Since then Cleese has produced films, written books and staged one-man shows largely, he says, to pay off his ex-wife, which is probably what brought him all the way to Cleveland to keynote at Content Marketing World.  I’m here because this is the Mecca for content marketers and, also, I might never have another opportunity to visit the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame on the company dime!  Here’s what I learnt.

The Intelligent Unconscious

Described by Cleese as the force that moves a writer’s hands seamlessly across the keyboard or a golfer’s swing smoothly through the air, the intelligent unconscious is powerful but quiet, drowned out by the noise of the conscious mind going about it’s tasks, worrying about deadlines and striving to tick things off a never-ending to do list.

The intelligent unconscious is always there but rarely heard because, to do so, one has to stop and be quiet long enough to hear it.  The best way to do this is to achieve a meditative state, which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to mediate but it does mean you have to submit, completely, to your creative undertaking be it writing, drawing, composing or even swinging a golf club.

This meditative state, according to Cleese, is known as the tortoise mind.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

Lifted from Guy Claxton’s book of the same name, the hare and tortoise concept attempts to clarify the precise differences between creative and non-creative brain function.

Not as geometrically clear-cut as left brain/right brain Cleese suggests that the hare and tortoise represent different modes of thinking rather than different parts of the brain.

The hare brain, as the name implies, is always in a hurry trying to get things done.  It has purpose and is decisive and is essential for anyone to live a healthy and productive life with other human beings.  But, in its quest for efficiency and productivity the Hare is not very original.

That’s where the tortoise ambles in (lazily chewing a leaf as I picture it.)  Slower and more meditative the tortoise meanders around the garden of the mind with no particular destination but along the way makes observations that the hare, in its hurry, misses.

This explains why so many creative thinkers, Einstein included, spend so much time staring out of windows (much to the consternation of those working in other departments).  The creative thinkers are working too; it’s just that they don’t always know exactly what they’re working towards.  But they have faith that if they let the tortoise wander it will eventually stumble upon something worthwhile such as idea or solution.

At this point Cleese was quick to point out that not all ideas are good, but without them you have nothing so it is important you know how to find them and that’s why you need a tortoise enclosure.

The Tortoise Enclosure

The tortoise enclosure exists in time and space, maybe a couple of hours set aside each morning or each week in a place that nobody can reach you; without glowing screens and bleeping devices. Without tasks, demands or deadlines that induce a hare-brained state.  Somewhere you can just be and see what comes of it.

It’s getting harder and harder to find a tortoise enclosure these days so you may have to consider building one in the garden or the shed or under the dining table.

At first you will be overrun with thoughts, those that nag you should write down to get them out of your brain, but eventually all will settle.

Then, when it’s nice and quiet and you are safe, your tortoise will come out to play.

Einstein favoured having his feet up on the desk staring out of the window.  Edison liked to doze in a chair clutching a handful of ball bearings that would tumble onto a metal plate beneath him should he completely drop off waking him up just enough to access a dream-like state.

Either way, once you come out of the enclosure the hare brain becomes extremely useful in helping you turn your new found idea into something tangible and real and the best creative thinkers can oscillate between both states to access maximum creativity and productivity.  But you can’t have one without the other.  Most of us already have a hare brain; just make sure you have a tortoise enclosure too.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/RYeJR