Five Reasons You Didn’t Win a MacArthur Genius Grant

You definitely deserved it!

man thinking
No genius grant this year? Better luck next time.

Photograph by George Doyle and Ciaran Griffin.

It’s the time of the year to not to win big prizes. The Nobels are just around the corner, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellows were just announced. The MacArthur “genius” awards are much worse than the Nobels. Whereas the Nobels reward breakthroughs that have already transformed particular academic fields, the genius grants are more prospective in nature, broader in scope, and come with a $500,000 bursary meant to encourage great things still in the making. The practical upshot is that whereas Nobels go to those comfortably on the road to a well-earned retirement, the Genius Grant Fairy may alight on just about anyone. Maybe even you!

No, obviously, of course not you. Or me, either. But the prospect of the ultimate Facebook humblebrag (“So surprised when I got that call! Naturally I thought it was for my brilliant spouse LOL, totally embarrassed!”) or cocktail party moment surely requires a prepared response. The range of reasons one might offer for not winning a genius grant (apart from the obvious reason) is quite wide. The preferred strategy depends on the impression one is trying to convey. Possibilities include:

Disdain: “Another year, another unaccountable oversight by the MacArthur Fellowship committee. It’s getting a little embarrassing, to be honest.” This approach is obviously high risk, but in this game you have to believe in yourself, ideally to a delusional degree.

Insinuation: “Well, it’s hard to get a MacArthur when so much of my work has been classified by the Executive Order, anonymous by personal choice, or published under the pseudonym ‘Samuel Beckett.’ ” Taking this line has the advantage of not requiring you to be able to point to any unrecognized achievement in particular.

Cooptation: “Look, you have to understand that when the foundation comes to me for advice, I can’t in good conscience recommend myself—I’m not Dick Cheney, you know.” Here we rely on the fact that no one has the faintest idea who picks MacArthur genius awards or knows anything about the foundation besides its commitment to a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

The High Road: “I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. I suppose this sort of thing is appealing to certain shallow-minded people, but all I really care about is my work and the people I love, and I never give a second thought to prizes, really.” This is a lovely, noble sentiment whose only disadvantage is that no one will believe you.

The Even Higher Road: “One can’t expect a true genius to be recognized in his or her own time. The very idea is a contradiction in terms! The best I can hope for is that posterity will grant me the recognition necessarily denied me now.” The main thing to be said in favor of this approach is that it’s probably right about real genius. The main thing to be said against it is that, to be quite frank, the favorable judgment of posterity is probably the only roll of the dice you have left at this point.