Well, it’s official. The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who received the so-called “Genius Grants” and I was not among them.
The cast of Fellows this year range from a social psychologist who studied racial bias and how it affects criminals’ sentencing to a poet, a playwright and a saxophonist. Also present among the winners are people dealing in cryptology, nanomaterials and black carbon emissions. A civil rights attorney, a labor organizer and a documentary filmmaker are among the winners, too. What, I ask myself somewhat querulously, do these 21 people have that I do not (besides, of course, the $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend they’ll be receiving over the course of the next five years)?
To answer this question, I turned to “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants‘”written by Cecilia Conrad and posted on the Washington Post‘s website on Sept. 20. I wanted to find out more about the people, the process and how I might ingratiate myself into someone’s favor enough to be nominated. Here’s what I learned:
- You don’t really have to be a “genius” to win. Turns out that nickname was coined by the media in 1981 when the MacArthur Foundation announced its first class of fellows and like all good nicknames, it stuck. Rather than genius, “We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways,” writes Ms. Conrad. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
- The process for selecting the Fellows isn’t really a secret. I had heard that you can’t curry a nomination, that it’s a secret process and the winners just get tapped on the shoulder and told “You’ve won!” The people who do the nominating are chosen by the MacArthur Foundation and invited to put forward names of the most creative people they know. Those names and information about their accomplishments are then evaluated by an independent selection committee. The nominators, evaluators and selectors are kept anonymous, though. Even after a Fellow has won the grant, he or she will not know who nominated them.
- The winners are not just artists and academics. According to the article, between 2001 and 2012 36% of the Fellows came from the fields of arts and humanities, 36% from science or social science and 26 % worked on issues related to social problems like healthcare, homelessness and food security. If there’s a common theme among the diversity of these professionals it would have to be the ability to see, think and act creatively.
One other thing I learned from another article written by the same author on the MacArthur Fellows website is that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. “This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history,” Ms. Conrad writes. Fellows tend to be drawn to cultural centers, live outside the states in which they were born and some even have more than one residence. Nearly a quarter of them were born outside the United States. The conclusion seems to be that these creative folk are drawn to centers of diversity and seek that diversity to nurture their creativity.
That last point–that the Fellows are more mobile than most–gives me hope. As someone who has lived in places all over the country and who is drawn to cultural centers like Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome, I’m well-suited for this grant. I’m bursting with projects and ideas that need only the injection of some cash ($625,000 to be precise) to flourish. Oh please, MacArthur Foundation, won’t you pick me next year?
[Photo credits: Masthead–“Man Dealing the Four Elements” by Robert Heinecken, 1998, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Inset–from the offices of Keller Williams Success Realty, Barrington, IL]