Even before the Jackson 5 signed with a nationwide label, their father, Joseph found ways to introduce them to music greats, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, and Jackie Wilson. Jermaine describes Michael as “peppering them with questions”, and writes,
- … in the van going home afterward, [Michael] became the most vocal and animated out of all of us: “Did you hear when he said …” or “Did you notice that …” or “Did you see Jackie do that move …”. My brother was a master studier of people and never forgot a thing, filing it away in a mental folder he might well have called “Greatest Inspirations & Influences”.
Michael, the Perpetual Learner
Even at the age of 7, Michael recognized the value of not only being a good student at school but also a good student at music.
Is it any surprise that Michael was the most successful, musically, of the Jackson 5? He had his natural pure voice that was made for music. He had the discipline taught to him by his father. He even had the stage experience, gained through performing throughout the country. But, he also had the humility to respect those who had already achieved fame, and Michael was willing to learn from them as well.
How often do we settle, satisfied with our own natural talent and basic schooling? How often do we think talent and basic education is sufficient for success? How often are we willing to be “the worst member in the band” so that we might learn from those greater than we? And, most importantly, how often are we able to set aside our pride and humble ourselves to seek out the experts and “pepper them with questions”?
My Lessons Learned
I’ll admit it took me more than 30 years to learn what Michael had with 7. I thought chance meetings with those I admired or those who inspired me were for autographs and pictures. But, the truth is autographs are really only good for selling on eBay, and pictures are really only good for sharing with friends. If you walk away with these superficial memories, in my opinion, you have no right to claim these individuals as inspirations or admirations. Take the additional step to learn from these individuals who have already proven themselves successful in their field.
- The Appropriate Venue: Finding the right time and place to contact a potential “teacher” is perhaps the most important part of the learning process. Quiet observation can happen at any moment, but communication has to be planned.
Understand that like you, others have work hours and off-work hours. Fame and or recognition does not change that fact. If you wish to be taken seriously by someone from whom you wish to learn, you must first respect his time.
There are multiple “places” that could be considered the appropriate venue depending on the individual. I have had success through email, twitter, concerts, facebook, conferences, and phone interviews. Not all of these encounters were planned, and I wasn’t always prepared but each was a learning experience!
As a side note, neither twitter nor email are time specific, meaning questions asked through these means can be answered at the expert’s convenience. If using twitter, first note how many individuals are following the account and how often the expert tweets before choosing twitter as the appropriate venue.
- The Appropriate Questions: An equally important part of being a good, respectful learner is the approach: you must know why the expert is an expert. It’s not enough to know that the two of you share similar interests or work in the same field. Respecting your teacher means you know his niche or specialization; you know his previous work; you know his current work; and you know with whom he has worked.
Of Michael, Jermaine writes, “He watched them onstage with the scrutiny of a young director, focusing on [songwriter] Smokey [Robinson]’s words, focusing on [performer] Jackie [Wilson]’s feet”. Michael asked these musicians questions specific to their recognized skills, and we must do the same if we expect to have that “mental folder … called ‘Greatest Inspirations and Influences'”.
- Opportunities for Networking: Finally, never miss an opportunity to network. This means you shouldn’t treat these encounters as one-time experiences. It is okay and, in fact, important that you view these “meetings” as a jumping off point. Part of respecting the teacher is not using him as an encyclopedia. You can ask questions, yes, but also share what you are doing to improve your knowledge and add to the field of your passion.
Most of these contacts will be excited that you view them as teachers and will want to know the why, what, when, and how of your passion. These individuals can refer you to their colleagues and open doors that would otherwise be closed.
Still, as with any situation, you need to be aware: there will be those who have a superiority complex and are incredibly competitive. They don’t want to teach, and they certainly don’t want to know about you. But, then, if you’ve done your homework, you should already know that!
As children, we should expect those closest to us to not only recognize our natural talents and skills, but also to nurture them. As adults, it becomes our responsibility to seek out our own mentors and seize every opportunity to learn. So far, this has been the most important lesson I have learned from Michael Jackson’s life.
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