I Am Not a Genius
September 26, 2002
Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s “genius grants”. I didn’t get one. Not that I was expecting one or feel I deserve one, but it bums me out that I’m not doing great work, important work, anything worthy of that kind of recognition. No one is going to give me $100,000 a year for five years for what I’m doing with my life. What happened to my bright future, living up to my potential?
Sure, I have a pretty good life, but it’s not extraordinary, it’s not genius-worthy. Where did I go wrong? Are the grant winners smarter than me? (Since I didn’t write “smarter than I”, yeah, maybe they are.) I don’t know that intelligence is the issue. I’m sure some of the recipients are a lot smarter than I am, and some are equally smart, and some are not as smart. But they’re all recognized as geniuses now, and I’m not.
I think the key difference between them and me is passion. One of the winners interviewed on NPR said he was going to keep doing the same things he’d been doing. That tells me he’s already doing exactly what he wants to be doing, following his heart, his dream; the money won’t change that. I couldn’t say the same. If someone gave me a big enough grant, no strings attached, I’d quit my job. I’m not sure how much money I’d need to do that. Would $100K a year be enough to retire forever? Probably not, but it would pay for a nice long sabbatical to travel and quilt. My current job is the best I’ve ever had, but still, I wouldn’t do it for free, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t need my salary to support my lifestyle.
I’m guessing most of the grant winners will be like the man I heard interviewed and keep doing what they’re already doing. They followed their passion, even when it wasn’t practical. The woman who runs the dance company that performs in places like shipyards—that sounds like something you’d only do if you had a vision, if you were a real risk taker. The riskiest thing I’ve done in my working life is quitting my corporate accounting job without having anything else lined up and taking six months off. But event that wasn’t very risky; I had a savings cushion and an employed husband to see me through. It doesn’t take a whole lot of vision to make that leap.
In seeking out comfort and stability and security in my life, what possibilities have I given up, shut off, denied? It’s sad to ponder. Sadder still, I don’t have the urge to change now. I like being settled, knowing the bills will get paid. That seems so conventional, so boring. I don’t seem to have great things in me. Good, maybe, but not great, and certainly not genius.