The award is speculative; it does not recognize lifetime achievement but invests in individual potential.
4. Creativity just happens.
One of the biggest misunderstandings is that creativity is a flash of brilliance that does not require support — that people are either creative or they are not. In fact, virtually all fellows have invested years honing their expertise, and many have overcome obstacles to projects that have later defined new frontiers. Sometimes an experiment does not yield the expected results but points to a new direction. A researcher may be unable to find money for exploratory research, or a social entrepreneur may lack access to the financiers who can support a smart idea. Fellows have told us about being on the verge of quitting — selling the piano or leaving academic research for a commercial lab — when they got our call.
Creativity blossoms when someone is given the autonomy and flexibility to take on ideas or projects whose potential payoff may be distant or unknown. Creativity shrivels when there are short-term pressures for publication or financial reward. For instance, the 2000 fellowship program gave radio documentary producer David Isay the freedom to build StoryCorps, now celebrating its 10th year of collecting the oral histories of people from all backgrounds.
And creativity requires role models: stories of individuals who have taken risks and persisted through failures to make something new, to find unexpected solutions to old problems or to create objects of beauty that renew the human spirit. The MacArthur Fellowship is meant to recognize, celebrate and inspire creativity among us all.
5. It’s all downhill after winning the fellowship.
We do not track the hundreds of books published, patents granted and awards received by our fellows. It is not even clear that these are the right metrics to capture the program’s success or theirs.
The fellowship is speculative, based on the potential for creativity, and creativity involves taking risks. If every fellow hit only home runs, we would worry that they were not taking enough risks or that we’d chosen the wrong people. Also, the success of the program cannot be measured solely by individual outcomes. We bring attention to many overlooked fields, such as blacksmithing (Tom Joyce, 2003) and bowmaking for stringed instruments (Benoît Rolland, 2012), typography (Matthew Carter, 2010) and ornithology (Richard Prum, 2009), language preservation (Jessie Little Doe Baird, 2010) and elder rights (Marie-Therese Connolly, 2011).
So, when we announce the new fellows Wednesday, remember that they were not selected out of the blue. Individually, they demonstrate a track record of enduring accomplishment through tenacity, imagination and risk-taking. Collectively, they reflect the diversity of American creativity.