Act Like You Deserve a MacArthur

One of my boyfriends used to joke that he wouldn’t feel like a success until he got a call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that he’d received a “genuis grant,” currently $625,000 awarded each year by the foundation to creative people in many fields.

This year, for the first time, the foundation is revealing data on the origin and mobility of its genuises, who must be U.S. citizens or live in the United States to be eligible. It turns out that they are more mobile than other Americans. They like to cluster.

You don’t need to be a hermit to be creative. Many breakthroughs come through collaborations–often in duos–or arise in innovative groups like the Impressionists. Creative people typically say they need lots of time to work and stimulating environments. They need cool friends and parties.

In the 18th century, notable people born all over Europe tended to congregate in Rome, Paris, or Dresden. Today, the “genuises” are most likely to move to live in New York or California, where they can mingle with other scientists or artists. But sometimes a lower cost of living combined with an attractive community can bring them to settle in less populated areas–notably, enclaves in New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont.

Nearly a quarter of MacArthur recipients were born outside the United States. You may not need to move–but travel and stay a while. Social psychologists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux have found that time spent living abroad increases creativity.

When he was struggling to come up with the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk retreated to a monastery in Umbria, Italy and he often said afterwards that the change helped him make his grand discovery. There is some evidence that you needn’t get thee to a monastery; changing environments in itself can help people build new habits and get rid of old ones.

What makes you do your most creative work?