The MacArthur Fellows Program is a prize awarded annually to 20 – 30 citizens or residents of the United States, from any field based on their demonstrated talent, dedication and potential, and not necessarily on their past achievements. The complete list of recipients is here. If you glance through it, you will notice the winners’ occupations are remarkably diverse: spider silk biologists, farmers, atmospheric chemists, painters, sculptors, tropical foresters, rare book preservationists, computer scientists, doctors, historians, etc.
As the current prize for the MacArthur Fellows is $625,000 paid over five years, this award is seen as a future investment to let the fellowship recipients to their own devices and work on projects they wouldn’t have the resources, time, or money.
This grant doesn’t have any strings attached. As per the programs’ page:
There are no restrictions on how the money can be spent, and we impose no reporting obligations.
Like the Medicis, we’ll fund Michelangelo. If even one of them produces a great work of art, it will have been worth the risk — Roderick MacArthur
And was it worth the risk indeed. Quickly scanning the list of recipients, we see the Nobel prize winners Barbara McClintock and Esther Duflo, historian Jared Diamond, researcher Robert Sapolsky, inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, artist Lin-Manuel Miranda, author Ibram X. Kendi, and so many others.
In her Uncommon Genius book, Denise Shekerjian describes how great ideas are born based on her interviews with 40 MacArthur Fellows.
One insight from this book:
If you keep trying something and you keep failing, I think it’s very foolish to keep trying to do the same thing in the same way unless you’re sure that nothing else will work. I think you have to be more pragmatic. Instead of stupidly insisting and pushing in an area that hasn’t proven to be useful, you ought to put it aside and look at a different problem for a while and then return to it. The mind continues to work at it even when you’re not focused on it and sometimes discovers a new angle when the spotlight has been turned off. Then when you revisit the problem, you may be in a better position to re-conceptualize it and perhaps solve it. I’ve been very pragmatic in that way and haven’t let closed doors or defeats irritate me – very much — MacArthur Fellow and research psychologist Howard Gardner in Uncommon Genius
Perhaps nowadays, when we know more about how the brain alternates between focused mode (concentrating on the task at hand) and diffuse mode (relaxing our concentration from that specific task) and how this switching proves to be an excellent method for handling knowledge roadblocks, Gardner’s quote doesn’t look like much. But consider that Gardner received the MacArthur grant in 1981 and probably used this technique for years or decades before that.
This procedure works wonders, and so, we might need to remind ourselves when we feel stuck on one of our projects, as it will inevitably happen, what we could do: put the project on a shelf and let it simmer, do something else in the meantime, come back to the project, work, leave it again, and so on.
What is this elusive “something else” we could do in the meantime?
We could fall prey to the siren songs of procrastination and get trapped by neverending content scrolling. Not saying that this is wise, but we must acknowledge that it does happen.
We could prioritize sleep, an eminently diffuse mode.
We could let our minds wander and do something that relaxes us. Long walks, a hobby we enjoy, taking a bath and having a Eureka moment.
When I can’t bear to look at my poetry, I turn to my novel in progress. When the novel makes me ill, I draft the book review I promised someone. If the book review eludes me, I may sketch out an essay that I’ve been thinking of writing. There is always something on my desk that I can turn to, always something to work on — MacArthur Fellow and writer Brad Leithauser in Uncommon Genius
Arranging our ideas into various projects is yet another way to recharge our creative powers. Why should we do that?
Cross-pollination between projects. As Leithauser later explained, something in his essays could become a clue on how to give a voice to one of his struggling poems. The ever-surprising connections of handling multiple projects prove that creativity feeds on creativity.
Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
Stephen King – On Writing
Then, as Tim Hartford remarked in Messy:
A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead, the variety grabs our attention like a tourist gawping at details that a local would find mundane.
Targeting specifically only one endeavor has its drawbacks. An application might fail spectacularly. No publisher would be interested in our fantasy novels. No funding for our research. But having other projects in the backlog to focus on could serve as a reset moment, bringing exciting opportunities for a breakthrough.
Note that this approach is not multitasking, as we are not doing multiple things at once, but dealing with numerous projects in different phases to which we switch when we are in an impasse with a specific project, focusing entirely on the task at hand.
Still, handling many projects at once might trigger an anxiety-inducing work style. When to switch? What task to choose? Do I have too many projects? Too few? And more importantly, am I focusing on the right projects for me?
The answer will need a customized trial and error as we are all unique individuals, with our own peculiarities, just like everyone else. But there are some ways to handle this process.
Twyla Tharp, celebrated dancer, choreographer, and another MacArthur Fellow, calls her approach to work on different projects “the box”, where the box is a foldable file box.
I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses, I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.
There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes. The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.
Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box.
Twyla Tharp – The Creative Habit
If Tharp runs out of space in a box, she adds a new box to that project. And if she gets stuck on a project, she simply moves to another box and digs through its contents.
Or, consider this approach:
I have a related solution [to Twyla Tharp’s boxes] myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and 3×5 inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete.
As I write this, there are more than 15 projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top.
They’re active projects, and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.
Tim Hartford – Messy
In my case, I use a web application, Trello. I created several boards dedicated to my projects. For example, I have a board for writing articles on this website. As Trello follows the Kanban methodology, I have several columns in the articles board:
In each column, I have cards for each draft where in time, I put comments, articles, quotes, insights, and anything that is somewhat relevant to the topic and comes to my attention. In due course, I will move a card to the shorter list of Candidates or straight to the Doing column.
Then, when it is time to write an article based on the draft card from the Doing column, I create an outline based on the comments or my thoughts and write. Of course, not all comments end up in a published article, and I also add more comments as I write.
Once I publish an article, I delete that draft card from the Doing column and move a card from the Candidates column to the Doing column.
Perhaps this approach could be more streamlined, but it works for me as it lets me capture everything and see what drafts I have and which to pick (for example, the draft with the most comments from the Candidates column) if I am stuck with a specific article.
I recently started playing with flash fiction and short stories (nowhere near done yet), so scribbling dialogues or thinking about a character’s motivation is a new project that provides a welcome relief and context switching from the heavy research I need for some of my articles.
Still, this method of maintaining our creative powers by working on a set of diverse projects is not the only way to achieve our goals. We must discover an approach that is suited to our needs and keep at it.
And lastly, remember what Amos Tversky, yet another MacArthur Fellowship grant winner and a late collaborator of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, once said:
The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.
Note: Barbara Oakley names the thinking processes related to the frontoparietal network (focusing) and default mode network (wandering thoughts) the focused mode and the diffuse mode, respectively, in her book A mind for numbers and the wildly popular Coursera course, Learning How to Learn. I wrote more articles about focused / diffuse modes here.
Previously published here.