Creativity researchers define creativity as something that is novel and useful. By this definition, Michael Jackson is the epitome of creativity. Jackson's works were certainly novel. He created an entirely new music experience. His glove, jacket, dance and acting all bore the unique stamp that was Michael. And his works were without a doubt useful. He inspired other entertainers and connected with many people (including me, throughout much of my early childhood) through his heartfelt, dynamic, exciting music.
As far as creativity goes, Michael Jackson was once at the pinnacle, which makes him a musical genius. But I wonder, how far does his genius spread? If he had devoted his time to basketball at a young age, could he ever have dunked like the other M.J.? If he had committed to physics, could he have produced a revolutionary theory like Einstein's? With his innovative powers, could he have created Twitter?
This isn't an easy question to answer. If we look at the top of the ability spectrum -- the Michael Jacksons of the world -- only a few exist. And out of that already small number, only a few have reached eminence in more than one domain. Renaissance men or women do exist, but they are more the exception than the rule.
Another complication is that it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and practice to reach the highest levels of creativity (there is a general consensus that the minimum is 10 years, on average). In today's world of specialization, the amount of knowledge required to gain expertise in a domain is far greater than ever before. These years are spent obsessively honing a craft. Sacrifices are often made. Not only that, but in some domains 10 years may be the bare minimum if you want to be great. In research I conducted with creativity researcher James C. Kaufman, we found that creative writers, on average, require 10 years to expertise, but another 10 years for greatness.
So perhaps if Michael Jackson had devoted just as much time and energy to coming up with a new technology, he would have come up with Twitter. Or if he had majored in physics and spent 10 years studying the cosmos, he might have come up with a theory better than string theory. Or if he had spent as much time practicing basketball as Michael Jordan, he might have made the All-Star team of the NBA. It's all possible -- but highly improbable.
What made Michael Jackson such a success is that the particular talents he possessed in abundance were particularly suited for success in the entertainment industry. So few others in the entertainment industry had precisely the features he had, and in precisely the combination he had them.
Researchers Rena Subotnik and Linda Jarvin interviewed over 80 top students at different stages of their musical career and found that to get from competence to expertise required learning technical proficiency. But to get from expertise to "elite talent" required a lot of different components, including creative thought, charisma and practical intelligence (such as the ability to navigate the politics of the music business). Creativity and elite talent are a combination of multiple traits. Jackson had all these components in spades.
But how domain-general is creativity? Many researchers who work under the Ellis Paul Torrance model of creativity study "divergent thinking" -- the general ability across situations to think outside the box and imagine multiple possibilities. Torrance did have some success with his tests, but research shows that a complete understanding of creativity requires appreciation of both domain-general (traits that cut across domains) and domain-specific (traits that are particularly well-suited for a particular domain) contributions.
My dear friend and collaborator James C. Kaufman and his colleague John M. Baer developed an amusing, clever and nuanced model of creativity that integrates both domain-general and domain-specific components of creativity. According to their Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) model of creativity, the amusement park can be used as a metaphor to explore the nature of creativity. In order to understand high levels of creativity, they argue, you must understand requirements at various levels:
Initial requirements. What are the general requirements for entrance into the amusement park? You need time, money, desire and transportation. Likewise, to be creative, you need intelligence, divergent thinking, motivation, charisma, personality and suitable environments. The specific degrees needed to succeed vary depending on the field (just as height requirements differ depending on what ride you wish to go on).
The IQ, divergent thinking and personality requirements for world-class success in physics likely differs from music. Extroversion might be more important if you want to be an entertainer than if you want to be a mathematician. Whatever Michael Jackson's IQ, it was enough to do what he did. It wasn't his IQ that made him great but his other qualities, including his unique personality and divergent thinking (although he probably should have sometimes kept his divergent thinking to music). He also certainly had the motivation for music (even if it may have sometimes been external, coming from his father). And he grew up in a musical family, practicing with his brothers from a very early age.
General Thematic Areas. Just as you must decide which amusement park you want to visit, you have to decide which field to invest all your time and energy. Gregory Feist identified seven "domains of mind" in which people seem to differ in their abilities: psychology, physics, biology, linguistics, math, art and music. Howard Gardner proposed eight "intelligences": interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, naturalistic, language, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic and musical. J.C. Kaufman and Baer asked over 3,500 people to rate their own creativity across 56 different domains and found seven general thematic areas: artistic-verbal, artistic-visual, entrepreneur, interpersonal, math/science, performance and problem-solving. They also found that some forms of creativity, such as performance and artistic/visual creativity, were more strongly related to a general creativity factor than other forms of creativity, such as math/science.
However the domains are carved up, each one tends to display talent early. Gregory Park, David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow tracked high scorers on the verbal and math SAT at the age of 13 and found that 25 years later, they obtained very high levels of achievement in either math- or verbally-oriented fields. This certainly does not mean that late bloomers aren't possible, though. They are very possible! It's also important to note that high achievement does not always lead to high creativity, and vice versa: high creativity is not perfectly predicted by traditional, standardized measures of achievement! The existence of early talent in specific domains does suggest, though, that there exist a number of different forms of talents, and everyone has a different profile of strengths and weaknesses.
Michael Jackson had a unique blend of creative talents, including extremely high bodily-kinesthetic, musical, artistic-verbal, artistic-visual, entrepreneur and performance abilities. It's very rare for any individual to be as talented as Michael on any one of these, but to be so precocious on so many of these is indeed extremely, extremely rare. Michael had the X-factor, and the X-factor is rare. His confluence of abilities showed themselves early, performing in front of classmates and others during a Christmas recital at the age of 5. Rolling Stone described the young Michael as a "prodigy" with "overwhelming musical gifts." The video of Michael singing "Rockin' Robin" at the age of 14 is extraordinary (see a performance here). He had charisma, rhythm, dance movement, voice and attitude. He was a true showman, a consummate performer. It was all there at age 14.
Domains. Once you choose an amusement theme, you must choose a specific park to go to. Will it be Disneyland or Epcot Theme Park? Similarly, with creativity, what kind of writer do you want to be? A creative poet or creative journalist? At this level, specific motivation is important, as well as knowledge and opportunities. Michael excelled in pop. He was the king of pop. Could he have done as well as a rapper, or a country music artist, or composing classical music? Probably not as well. His particular, unique constellation of abilities seemed perfectly suited to his specific domain of music.
Microdomains. Once you choose the park, you still have to decide what specific rides you want to go on. Likewise with creativity. Even within the pop/R&B genre, there are different styles -- most of which Michael created. The Moonwalk is a form of dance, and a microdomain in its own right. Could Jackson have been a brilliant ballerina? I think it's highly unlikely that he could have made such a splash in the world of ballet. His specific dancing abilities are so well suited to the larger domain of pop/R&B that it's impressive.
Howard Gardner and his colleagues distinguish between different microdomains depending on their "axis" and "focus." Microdomains have either a horizontal or vertical axis. If they have a vertical axis, there are lots of constraints, with lots of specific rules. If they have a horizontal axis, there is more flexibility. Microdomains also differ in their focus. Some are very modular and specific, whereas others apply to a broad range of situations. I'd say Michael was well suited to his particular microdomain of pop, which is horizontal and broad. This allowed Michael to make a splash early, without having to spend 10 years immersed in the domain, and also allowed his innovations to cut across multiple forms of music and inspire many different kinds of musicians.
So could Michael Jackson have created Twitter?
I don't think so. He was so innovative within his general thematic area (music), domain (pop/R&B), and microdomain (the "Michael Jackson" brand of pop/R&B), because of his unique constellation of talents and traits. In many ways he was put on this earth to do what he did. And boy did he do it well.