October is award season. The first of the Nobel prizes are now being announced. And last week we learned of the new group of MacArthur Foundation fellows, who have been awarded what are popularly known as “Genius Grants”. I especially look forward to the MacArthur awards every year. The stories about the awardees and what they have studied and worked on provides a window into human accomplishment, originality and the art of possibility. They introduce us to highly accomplished people we might not have heard of otherwise, particularly if they are working in fields we don’t normally follow. The winners receive $500,000 payable over five years; no strings attached. The foundation decides who gets the fellowships, and you can’t apply. The announcements invariably come as a surprise to those who are chosen. I particularly like how future-oriented the awards are. The foundation explains that the fellowships are “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”
This year’s group is typically eclectic, with a variety of doctors/scientists, writers, (including the novelist Junot Diaz), filmmakers, musicians, photographers and others. The MacArthur website also has profiles of all 873 Fellows going back to the first awards in 1981. It adds up to a fascinating record of human achievement and potential, though for a slightly different take on the process, read Emma Gilbey Keller’s October 2 post on theguardian. Most of us are not going to be MacArthur Fellows, let alone winners of Nobel Prizes. Yet reading these profiles makes us realize that we can strive to do the kind of work that would be worthy of such notice, whether we receive it or not. We all read, do research, carry out work each day in our various fields, collaborate, plan for the future and so on. Think of yourself as the potential winner of your own private fellowship. And then live up to it.
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