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Michael Jackson, 10,000 hours, and the roots of creative genius

That any person could become an expert in something if they simply spend about 3 hours per day for ten years learning it is an appealing concept. This idea, first championed by Ericsson and brought to prominence by Gladwell, has now taken root in the popular media. It attempts to discuss these differences in terms of the environment. The idea is that practice with the purpose of constantly gathering feedback and improving can lead any person to become an expert. If becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours, does a prodigy need 20,000.

Let’s consider, Michael Jackson, as an example of a prodigy. He grew up in a musical family in Gary, Indiana just outside Chicago. His father Joe played in an R&B band. All of his siblings played music in one way or another. Unlike his siblings and father, Jackson did not really play any instruments. However, he would compose songs in his head using his voice. One morning he came in and had written a song which eventually became ‘Beat It’. In the studio, he would sing each of the different parts including the various instruments. Then the producers and artists in the studio would work on putting the song together, following his arrangements.

Work in cognitive neuroscience has begun to shed light on the brain systems involved in creativity as being linked to psychometric IQ. Work by Neubauer and Fink suggests that these two different types of abilities, psychometric IQ and expertise, involve differential activity in the frontal and parietal lobes. They also appear for different types of tasks. In one study, taxi drivers were split into a high and low group depending on their performance on a paper and pencil IQ test. The results showed that both groups did equally well on familiar routes. The differences appeared between groups when they were compared on unfamiliar routes. In this condition, those with high IQs outperformed those with low IQ. So expertise can develop but the flexibility to handle new situations and improvise requires more than just practice.

Reports of Michael Jackson’s IQ are unreliable. However, he is purported to have had over 10,000 books in his reading collection and to have been an avid reader. His interviews reveal a person who was very eloquent and well spoken. And clearly he was able to integrate various different types of strands of music into interesting novel blends. If we were to lay this out across time, we have perhaps the roots of early genius. It is a person who has an unusual amount of exposure in a domain that starts at an early age. This would lead to the ability to play music very well.


Jackson came from a family filled with many successful musicians. Many were successful as recording artists. Perhaps Michael started earlier than his siblings. One conclusion we can draw from this natural experiment is that creative genius requires more than 10,000 hours. In the case of Michael Jackson, he read profusely and had very rich life experiences. He tried to meld these experiences into a blended musical genre that is uniquely his and yet distinctly resonant with known musical styles.

The kind of creativity is not restricted to prodigies like Michael Jackson. Language, our ultimate achievement as a human race, is something that no other animal species on this planet shares with us. The seeds of language exist all over the animal kingdom. There are birds that can use syntax to create elaborate songs. Chinchillas can recognize basic human speech. Higher primates can develop extensive vocabularies and use relatively sophisticated language. But only one species was able to take all of these various pieces and combine them into a much richer whole. Every human is born with the potential to develop much larger frontal lobes which interconnect with attention, motor, and sensory areas of the brain. It is in these enlarged cortical areas that we can see the roots of creative genius. So while 10,000 hours will create efficiency within restricted areas of the brain, only the use of more general purpose brain areas serve to develop true creativity.

Image credit: Michael Jackson with the Reagans, by White House Photo Office. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Valerie (All Things Michael)


    Thank you so much for writing this insightful and informative article about Michael Jackson’s creative genius as it relates to how his environment and eagerness to learn was key factor of increasing his IQ. I do believe that he was also born and gifted in such a way that lead him to seek a higher level of learning and creativity than most people.

    Most people fail to see how much he has impacted the world, not only through our universal language of music, but also our culture as a whole. If people would listen to his speeches and read his books or quotes, they will find that there is much to be learned from the world’s greatest entertainer with a heart of gold.

  2. TheresaB

    All too often shallow critics and the media failed to recognize the uniqueness and creative genius of Michael Jackson. Jackson’s pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment enriched his artistry and put him far above his peers, if there even were any. Sadly, there were so many missed opportunities to ask the right questions of this special artist while he was living in order to understand his creativity. Thank you so much for your ability and willingness to explore this subject further. We see a whole lot more of this in the academic world and should have been done years ago. Great insight in this article.

  3. Erika Cagliari

    Great article. Thank you.

  4. Antoinette

    Thankyou for such an interesting article… Michael Jackson is the greatest entertainer the world has known… He continues to influence the world even after his death… What an inspiration… What a man…. Long live the King….. We miss him….. We didnt know what we had.

  5. marya

    thanks for sharing this article with us. we know him to full of energy in music and art. he had masterpieces that proved he was intelligent.

  6. Glenda

    What a great loss. I know I will do my part in educating the young generation in my family that did not observe and enjoy the genius of Michael Jackson while he was with us. Thank you for this article.

  7. Peema

    What a flimsy idea! I didn’t like this article or the premise.
    Hmmm… A multimillionaire had 10,000 books and you assume he was well read?
    Jackson rarely appeared eloquent when interviewed except to coo about music, art or dance. On every level the guy was an increasingly unstable space cadet.
    Where are the legions of creative genius kids of all the creatives that had them? They have had time, just like Jackson, to read widely, they had well over 3 hours spare a day, and a ton of immersive experience.

    Michael had a great voice, made some great tunes, but this only happened with the help of great writers and producers.
    Cue the Jackson defenders…. Groan… I’m not disagreeing that he had talent, he made some of the all-time classic tracks, ok?, but that does not make this article valid.

    Find a more suitable subject to hang this thin article on or just leave it in the pub…

  8. Moron

    There is lot of BS in this article. MJ played instruments. He also composed on instruments and he also played instruments on many of his songs.

  9. Andy


    1. MJ was indeed a voracious reader he didn’t just collect books because he had money to buy them. His bodyguards who were with him in later years noted that he spent hours and hours reading everything from history to science, he was relentlessly curious and loved to read ever since he was a child.

    2. I don’t know what you mean by unstable space cadet but from those who actually knew him , which is obviously not you, you can hear the opposite: he was remarkable even tempered , patient, polite, respectful and wonderful to work with. His only interview where you could argue he was unstable is the one with Bashir, every other one shows a very calm and consistent person, far from being unstable.

    4. If you want to see how eloquent he was listen to the speech he gave at Oxford. He wrote it, gives you a good idea how his mind worked.

    5. Yes he worked with other songwriters and producers but he himself composed and wrote hundreds of songs including the ones which became the most famous and timeless, he did his own demos (he actually did play the piano and percussion) and if you listen to the songs which he himself produced they leave little doubt that he was a first rate producer too. He worked with others because he was a perfectionist and wanted the absolute best (not just good music like Prince for example) but major blockbusters like Off the Wall Thriller Dangerous you don’t get that many giant albums alone, it was the combination of the talents of Jackson, Jones, Temperton etc. MJ wanted the best of the best but he was the boss noone else. Which is why Quincy Jones never achieved success like the one he had with Jackson before or since.

    6. He was also an exceptional choreographer who co-created some of the most iconic choreographies of all time. The choreographies who worked with him never achieved the level of success before or since him, that shows that it was him who made those pieces the timeless classics they are. Moveover he could somehow take various styles of dancing mixed them with his own ideas and create an absolutely unique and iconic brand of dancing that is recognizable instantly around the world regardless of culture. That takes some genius as very few dancers have a style which is identifiable with them.

  10. sam

    Thank you for a very educative article with the perfect example. It is more articles like these that need to be published and publicized.

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