On Prizes, Genius and Impact

Can prizes create genius, encourage existing genius or merely reward it?

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?

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