Nobody Expects the MacArthur Foundation

Learning you've won a "genius grant" is a little like living in an Ian Fleming novel

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Winning a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. the genius grant) isn't just an honor. It's a total surprise. The Wall Street Journal spoke to one of this year's winners:

"I got what I thought was a random email. I thought it was spam," cellist Alisa Weilerstein said in a phone interview from Jerusalem, where she was performing last week. "It said, 'I've been trying to get in touch with you, can you please call me back.' And I replied, 'Well, I don't know who you are.' "

Bioengineer and 2003 recipient Jim Collins gave a similar account of his experience in a New York Times op-ed in 2005:

Two years ago, I received a call. The person on the other end of the line asked if I was Jim Collins and if I was alone. For a moment, I thought I was receiving an obscene phone call.

The caller then told me I had been selected as a MacArthur fellow. I laughed, convinced this was another well-orchestrated prank by one of my former college roommates. The caller tried to reassure me, and eventually gave me a number to call to confirm the award. The number had a Chicago area code, the home of the MacArthur Foundation. Maybe this was legit.

Whether in the form of a phone call, email or proverbial note-under-the-door, the MacArthur Foundation's spy-like approach to notifying grant recipients point to the ambiguousness of the process of selecting them. The MacArthur Fellowship isn't something that you apply for. It's the end result of "elaborate nomination and selection process" to quote WSJ.

As the foundation explains on their website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential." So it should come as no surprise that the recipients  don't apply. Seriously, just imagine the "Pick me! I'm Creative!" applications the foundation employees would (and probably do) receive. There are some qualifications. "Recipients must reside in the United States or be American citizens," explains Diane Coutu at the Harvard Business Review who spoke to MacArthur Fellows Program Director Daniel J. Socolow in 2007. "Otherwise there are almost no restrictions on who can win (the IRS has ruled out senior-level government officeholders and employees). A record of achievement counts, but fellows need not be publicly acclaimed writers or scientists or mathematicians."

Inevitably, the lack of process sums up what makes the MacArthur Foundation so special. "We're intentionally ambiguous, because once we try to define what we're looking for, we lose the power to consider many different kinds of people. For us, the possibilities are endless," Sololow says. "There is simply no single profile. The youngest MacArthur fellow was 18; the oldest was 82. Fellows come from inside and outside the academy. We keep looking, but the strongest pattern is that there is no pattern."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.