The MacArthur Geniuses

The MacArthur Geniuses

The MacArthur Geniuses

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 7 2000 9:30 PM

The MacArthur Geniuses

How to become one of them.


When Peter Hayes learned that he had won a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant last month, he was stunned: It's "like being hit by a Mack truck. … It's a little disorienting," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Hayes shouldn't have been too disoriented. It would have been surprising if he hadn't collected a MacArthur. He helps North Korea develop windmills as an alternative to nuclear power. He takes underprivileged kids sailing in San Francisco Bay during his free time. And he lives in Berkeley, Calif., where you can't buy a latte without meeting a MacArthur-stamped brainiac.


Since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded 588 "fellowships" worth nearly $200 million to Americans "who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." (The foundation detests the word "genius" because it "because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess.") The fellowship is a no-strings-attached grant: Each 2000 winner will get $100,000 a year for five years. MacArthur calls the cash a gift of time, because it frees winners from financial constraints on their art, science, or activism. (The $4 billion foundation is the estate of John D. MacArthur, a skinflint who became the second-richest American by selling cut-rate insurance through the mail. His son Rod grabbed control of the trust after John's 1978 death and pushed the genius project.)

The MacArthur has become the United States' most famous philanthropy project not because it rewards stellar people—though it does—but because it's mysterious. Several hundred talent scouts, whose identities are secret, suggest nominees to the selection committee. The committee, whose members are also secret, covertly gathers dossiers on the nominees and selects two-dozen-odd winners. In a nation where self-promotion is a constitutional right, the MacArthur is endlessly frustrating: You can't nominate yourself, you can't nominate a friend, you can't lobby for it if you are nominated. What's an unappreciated genius to do?

Don't fear, the MacArthur is less cryptic than it seems. It can be gamed. You may not be able to guarantee yourself half-a-million bucks and a reputation for brilliance, but you can certainly improve your odds. Here's a how-to guide for becoming a certifiable genius.

Rule No. 1: Live in New York or San Francisco. New Yorkers and San Franciscans act like they're the most interesting people in the world. MacArthur agrees with them. Fully one-sixth of all MacArthurs live in Manhattan, and nearly as many live in the Bay Area. (Six of this year's 25 MacArthurs are Manhattanites, and three are from Berkeley.)

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


No matter what, don't live in the South. Southerners rarely qualify as geniuses unless they're sensitive writers or colorful advocates for the poor. (This year's only Southern winner is typical: Auburn Professor Samuel Mockbee builds houses for poor Alabamans out of old tires and hay bales.) The Great Plains and Rockies are equally inhospitable to genius: You're unlikely to win unless you've started a bank or college on an Indian reservation. Stick to the Northeast and the West Coast.

Rule No. 2: Be a professor. Specifically, be a professor at Harvard or Stanford, where they hand out MacArthurs like candy. If you're a humanities professor, choose Harvard (which has 35 MacArthurs) or University of California, Berkeley (which has 23). Hard scientists should land a job at Stanford (24) or Princeton (20). Physicists at one of those two universities seem to win MacArthurs more easily than tenure. In a pinch, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Columbia, and New York University are acceptable backups, but avoidYale! It's got only six geniuses. You'd be better off with Bard College, whose tiny faculty has won four MacArthurs. (As Harvard grads have always suspected, Yale is approximately one-sixth as good as Harvard.)

But it's not enough to be a professor. You also must choose the right specialty. Ancient civilizations win MacArthurs. Revisionist scholars of classical Greece do well, and MacArthur has identified not one, but two geniuses who decipher ancient Mayan glyphs and a third who deciphers ancient Andean knotted mnemonic devices (whatever they may be). Literature, philosophy, and history all win plenty of MacArthurs. Economics is unpromising, unless you study something odd. 2000 winner Matthew Rabin, for example, analyzes the economic implications of procrastination. Physics, math, and computer science are beloved of MacArthur. Chemistry is a lost cause. Environmentalism is a sure winner. Biologists should study evolution, dinosaurs, or primates, and little else.

Rule No. 3: If you don't want to teach college, make art. Preferably in New York: One in 10 MacArthurs is a writer, choreographer, artist, musician, or director in New York City. Again, pick the right specialty. Be a poet or a choreographer. Novelists, painters, and film directors seem underrepresented. Among musicians, jazz is good, and free jazz is even better. Needless to say, no matter what kind of artist you are, be avant-garde.


Rule No. 4: Do not, under any circumstances, work for the government or the private sector. This cannot be stressed enough. Many MacArthur geniuses advocate government activism, but all fellows assiduously avoid public service. I found only two MacArthur winners from the public sector, small-town Mayor Unita Blackwell and then-Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin. Similarly, geniuses should not soil themselves with earning a profit. It's fine to run a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged people start their own businesses, but almost no MacArthurs run or work for profit-seeking corporations.

Rule No. 5: Upset conventional wisdom. You don't have to be right, but you must be provocative. It's not enough to study quantum physics. You must, like 1999 winner Eva Silverstein, "question the fundamentals of quantum physics." MacArthur honored the classicist who reinterpreted the Parthenon friezes as a human sacrifice and the paleontologist who says that Tyrannosaurus Rex ate carrion rather than hunted. If you're a mathematician, set yourself one of math's great insoluble problems: MacArthur knighted Andrew Wiles for cracking Fermat's Theorem and Michael Freedman for proving the four-dimensional case of Poincare's Conjecture.

The best kind of provocation is a doomsday theory. MacArthur adores folks who foresee the end of the world, especially if that end is caused by Western avarice or stupidity. MacArthur has blessed Paul "Population Explosion" Ehrlich; Richard Turco, who popularized the idea of nuclear winter; and several scientists who have sounded warnings about global warming. (Prediction: MacArthur will soon reward someone who studies how water shortage is plunging Africa and the Middle East into war.)

Rule No. 6: Be left wing. MacArthur generally finds genius on the left. Only a handful of the 588 genies could be considered conservative. (Black community developer Robert Woodson is the most notable.) On the other hand, four Dissent editorial board members have won the MacArthur, according to the American Spectator. The foundation likes artists who campaign for racial minorities and the needy. Alfredo Jaar, a 2000 winner, creates art that "focuses on injustices around the world—poverty, exploitation, genocide." 1997 winner Kara Walker constructs silhouettes about racial and sexual exploitation. 2000 fellow David Isay produces brilliant radio documentaries about the lives of poor Americans. The foundation favors activists who fight for low-income housing, disability rights, and racial justice. Libertarians, religious conservatives, and free marketeers are never geniuses. MacArthur routinely consecrates the causes célèbres of the left, from sex discrimination to right-wing human rights abuses in Central America (see: Mark Danner, Tina Rosenberg, and Alma Guillermoprieto).


The MacArthur's reliable support of left-wing causes makes it fun to guess future winners. My bets: 1) Jerry Berman from the Center for Democracy and Technology for lobbying to protect Internet privacy; 2) an agriculture activist for showing the dire health risks of genetically modified food; and 3) Edward Hooper, author of The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, for theorizing that vaccination experiments in Southern Africa caused the HIV virus to cross from monkeys to humans. *

Rule No. 7: Be slightly, but not dangerously, quirky. MacArthur favors the eccentric choice over the ordinary. Economist Rabin wears tie-dyes, listens to Abba, and has Johnny Depp posters all over his office wall. David Stuart won when he was an 18-year-old prodigy. Recluse Thomas Pynchon took a MacArthur; social butterfly John Updike has not. And it surely helped Seattle "sound sculptor" Trimpin that he goes by only one name.

All the rules suggest that the perfect MacArthur genius is still out there: a one-named Berkeley professor who choreographs interpretative jazz dances about how genetically modified food will destroy humanity.

Correction, Oct. 10, 2006: This piece misspelled Edward Hooper's name, incorrectly calling him Edward Hopper. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)