On Prizes, Genius and Impact

Posted by: Jessi Hempel on May 31, 2007

I’ve been noticing a growing number of newly announced prizes recently. Just yesterday I had coffee with the official spokesperson from the Rockefeller Foundation who told me about the Jane Jacobs Medal, a new prize they were launching this year in honor of the Urbanist and author (with the fabulous glasses!). Do prizes spur innovation? Can they create genius, encourage existing genius or merely reward it?

Of course I can’t ask this question without thinking immediately of the most coveted and mysterious of all prizes, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Great article on how geniuses are selected in this month’s Harvard Business Review. The process is so enigmatic that it seems random; it’s not. According to their Web site: “The fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.”

I wonder how successful it is? The prize is now 27 years old. This morning I ran the first class of winners - from June 1981 - through Google to see how many had made their significant contributions to their fields before the award and how many had gone on to do so after receiving the award (meaning perhaps it helped them.) Stats below the jump.

Based on Google and wikipedia only, I came up with:

Largest achievements after: 8
Largest achievements before: 10
Couldn't tell: 4

I actually think those are impressive stats - though I'd have to interview them and look deeper to get a real sense of how the prize helped them. Has anyone already done this research?

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

May 31, 2007 12:56 PM

This is a fascinating area to dive deeper into. I've done no research, but I would be as interested to hear what you find as anyone. Years ago, a visiting professor of mine, novelist Aleksandar Hemon, received a Guggenheim grant not long after I took his class, and he responded by deciding not to teach any more. In his case, at least, it seeks like the freedom to concentrate on what is most interesting in the moment could be a big benefit to his work. On the other hand, he hasn't released a book since he got the grant, so it's too soon to call.

David Rankin

May 31, 2007 2:27 PM

Go for it Jessi. This is a fascinating question that I often wrestle with in designing the programming at a medium size endowment. If I might suggest a friendly amendment to your title, I'd go with "On Prizes, Genius, and Impact." It would be very interesting to see what the recipients thought that they were able to change (in the world, their fields, and so on)as a result of the prize.

Have fun with this.

Jessi Hempel

May 31, 2007 4:26 PM

Thanks Pete and David. And David, I made the ammendment - I'll reach out to recipients. But are they the best or only source for this? Should I also talk to other folks in their field perhaps?

David Rankin

June 5, 2007 4:18 PM

Jessi,

The recipients are certainly not the only source that should speak to the impact of their work. If you can, I would talk certainly talk to others but would be sure to ask the recipients. My suspicion is that many of these folks have impact well beyond a single "field." Good luck and keep writing!

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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