Creative output combines hard work with being in the moment

Creative output combines hard work with being in the moment

My friend, Ed, met Michael Jackson in 1989 when the King of Pop visited a school in Harlem. As part of his visit, Jackson took a group of kids out to dinner and to the Big Apple Circus. Ed, who was working with the Milken Scholars program, accompanied the group that evening.

Milken Scholars was founded in 1989 by Lori and Michael Milken to identify exceptional low-income students and provide them with necessary resources and networks to achieve academic and professional success. In its initial year, the Milken Scholars program selected 16 students from a single high school in Harlem. And Jackson was there to celebrate the hard work that led to their achievements.

I asked Ed his impressions of Michael Jackson that evening. Ed remembered his humility and shyness. But Ed also noticed the attention and encouragement Jackson gave students who shared their experiences with him. The King of Pop emphasized education, reminding the students to believe in themselves and work hard to accomplish their goals.

When the group arrived at the Big Apple Circus, Jackson switched from mature mentor to excited, enthusiastic, and engaged kid. He was totally “in the moment” as he reveled in the magic of the circus. It seemed to Ed that the superstar was having as much fun — perhaps even more fun — than the students! The experience of the circus fueled his creativity.


Michael Jackson with two high school students from Harlem.

Michael Jackson invited high school students from Harlem to dinner and the circus.

That combination of hard work and being in the moment characterized much of Michael Jackson’s creative output. Spike Lee, in his recently released documentary, Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, emphasized this combination. “To me, the most important thing that we tried to hammer home was Michael’s work ethic,” Lee commented. “He was a perfectionist. He worked hard at what he did. He practiced, studied, and worked at it.”

Jackson set goals for himself. Before his 20th birthday, he drafted a plan. “I will be magic … I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it,” he declared.

Jackson set a goal of studying the greats and perfecting his craft.

Jackson set goals of studying the greats and perfecting his craft.

His hard work and creative vision changed the world of popular dance and music. Jackson’s masterpiece, Thriller, has officially sold 30 million albums in the United States and more than 100 million albums throughout the world, making it the best-selling album of all time.

Thriller’s accompanying video, or “short film” in Jackson’s parlance, revolutionized the music business and broke through racial barriers. It was one of the first music videos by an African-American artist played on the traditionally all-white music television channel, MTV. The Library of Congress has selected the Thriller video to be preserved “for all time” — at the Library itself — as a “significant work of “enduring importance to American culture.”

Even with his globally-recognized creative output and multitude of achievements, Jackson never stopped encouraging young people to work hard, stay focused, and achieve. Since his death in 2009, many stories about his mentorship have emerged. Most recently, basketball great Kobe Bryant spoke of how Jackson influenced his approach to basketball.

“I was starting to get flack for being an introvert and being so serious all the time about the game. And he wanted to call and give me encouragement and say, ‘Don’t change for them. You have to stay focused. If you wanna be one of the all-time greats you have to study the all-time greats. You have to be obsessive about what you do and how you do it.'” —Kobe Bryant

Jackson probably encouraged those 16 students from Harlem to “stay focused,” work hard, and achieve their dreams. And they did. Ed tells me that several of those teens went on to break racial and class barriers, making notable professional and personal contributions. Inspiration and ideas are certainly components of creativity but Jackson’s focus and mastery — and plain old hard work — defined his creative output. His approach is an inspiration to students today.





Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Anna March 08, at 10:31

    It's not all about natural talent...hard work is just as, if not more, important! Michael Jackson truly embodied this and has definitely inspired me to never give up!


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