I recently got an email from a reader, Sylvia Marcin, who suggested a book she thought I might enjoy reading. A couple of hours later, friends of mine came through the front door raving about the same book. I assumed it was something new that everyone was reading. But it turns out that Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise Shekerjian, was first published in 1990 -- ancient in terms of today's lightening fast information exchange. The universe was telling me to read this book.
Author Shekerjian interviewed 40 "geniuses" for this book, all of whom had one thing in common -- they each received a phone call one day, out of the blue, informing them that they would receive a large amount of money, no strings attached, over the next five years, to do whatever they wanted with. They were recipients of the coveted MacArthur Award, a.k.a. the "genius award."
At the time of his death in 1978, John D. MacArthur was the second richest man in America and rumored to be the cheapest. But he left behind a two and a half billion dollar estate in the form of a foundation with only the following instructions to his board of trustees: "I figured out how to make the money, you boys figure out how to spend it." Thus the MacArthur Award was born. Its purpose "is to promote those leaps of creative thinking that may occur when gifted people are left to their own devices."
Shekerjian began writing Uncommon Genius wanting to know everything about the creative impulse: Where does it come from? How does it work? Can it be encouraged? Why are some people more creative than others? These are some of the questions she asks of artist Robert Irwin, educator Deborah Meier, filmmaker Fred Wiseman, theater/opera director Peter Sellars, journalist Richard Critchfield, archaeologist Ian Graham, sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, and clown/actor Bill Irwin, to name a few.
Sherkerjian isolates a list of eight simple principles of creativity that emerge from her interviews:
- Find your talent.
- Commit to it and make it shine.
- Don't be afraid of risk. Or even failure, which if seen in its proper light, brings insight and opportunity.
- Find courage by looking to something stronger and better than your puny vulnerable self.
- No lusting after quick resolutions. Relax. Stay loose.
- Get to know yourself; understand your needs and the specific conditions you favor.
- Respect, too, your culture. We can't, any of us, escape the twentieth century. It's tucked up around our collective chin as snugly and as firmly as the bedsheet.
- Then, finally, break free from the seductive pull of book learning and research and the million other preparatory steps that could delay for the entire span of a life and immerse yourself in the doing.
Sherkerjian goes on to look in depth at topics such as travel, luck, instinct, judgment, despair, isolation, madness and resiliency; and the role they play in the creative lives of the diverse group of fellows. She emphasizes the importance of resiliency in creative effort:
"The MacArthur Fellows are not quitters. Even in the face of insult. Or when confronted with defeat. Or when up against humiliation, despondency, hostility, boredom, or indifference. They find a way to make adjustments, to keep at it, to stay buoyant, to believe in themselves."
In her final chapter "For the Love of It" Sherkerjian tells the story of the truly inspiring Ellen Stewart, founder of the La Mama Theater. Ellen dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. As a child, she entered and won a design contest, which "earned her a smack in the mouth when she went to collect her prize for having had the audacity to enter it..." Ellen had committed the crime of being black.
Undeterred, she pursued her dream and eventually took off for New York. When the friend she was going to live with was a no-show at Grand Central Station, Stewart found herself alone in the big city. She wandered into St. Patrick's Cathedral, lit a candle and prayed for a job. About a half hour later she had that job -- across the street at Saks, pushing a broom. Her broom-pushing gave way to design opportunities and her gowns eventually ended up in the window of Saks fetching as much as $1500 each.
That alone is an inspiring story, but Stewart was depressed. She quit Saks after 11 years and headed off to Morocco. There she had a dream that set her in a new direction -- forming a theater for aspiring actors, playwrights, stagehands and set designers, dedicated to helping artists get a start. La Mama went on to become one of the most influential experimental theaters in the world. Stewart died earlier this year at the age of 91.
So whether you are someone who is thinking of making a life-changing leap into a different field, or someone who just needs a creativity tune-up, Uncommon Genius is an intimate and inspiring glimpse into the creative process of 40 uncommonly creative people.