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Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born Paperback – February 1, 1991

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Editorial Reviews Review

At the age of 38, John D. MacArthur, a destitute high-school dropout, borrowed $2,500 to buy the Bankers Life & Casualty Company of Chicago; eight years later he'd made a million dollars. At the time of his death in 1978 he was the second-richest man in America and "notoriously tightfisted." But he left most of his two-and-a-half-billion-dollar estate in the form of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, with only these 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 Prize, also known as the "genius grant," was born. The award cannot be applied for, and it is not limited to any particular field of interest. Its purpose "is to promote those leaps of creative thinking that may occur when gifted people are left to their own devices." For Uncommon Genius, Shekerjian interviewed forty MacArthur Prize winners--John Sayles, Peter Sellars, Ellen Stewart, and Derek Walcott among them--in an attempt to discover "how great ideas are born." While much of what she learns about the creative impulse is not exactly groundbreaking--it involves risk-taking, openness, concentration, resiliency, and a great love of the work--spending time with the creators she has chosen to include is fascinating. They bring these broad concepts to life by inviting us into their studios, offices, labs, even dorm rooms (the youngest interviewee, Mayan epigraphist David Stuart, was a Princeton student at the time) and discussing their own creative processes. There is much to be gleaned here, not only about how creativity applies itself to various fields (community action, political science, writing, art history, woodworking, and even being a clown), but about how to nurture your own "creative genius." --Jane Steinberg

From Publishers Weekly

Poets John Ashbery and Joseph Brodsky, ecologist Lester Brown, psychiatrist Robert Coles, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, filmmakers John Sayles and Frederick Wiseman, writers Brad Leithauser and Ved Mehta, woodworker Sam Maloof and comic Bill Irwin are among the 40 MacArthur fellows who discuss the subject of creativity with Shekerjian ( Competent Counsel ), who proves to be an effective interviewer and catalyst. They express their thoughts about talent and genius, instinct and judgment; the effects of despair, isolation and madness; and the importance of inspiration, drive and discipline, learning through doing, taking advantage of luck, "staying loose" and building resiliency.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reissue edition (February 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140109862
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140109863
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #551,653 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Thomas M. Loarie VINE VOICE on November 29, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"How are creative people able to look at the same thing as everybody else but see something different?" Denise Shekerjian relying on interviews with forty MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winners tries to answer this in "Uncommon Genius." The Fellows, all having demonstrated creative genius across a variety of pursuits, provide a glimpse inside their own experience with the creative process.

"All were driven, remarkably resilient, adept at creating an environment that suited their needs, skilled at honoring their own peculiar talents instead of lusting after an illusion of self, capable of knowing when to follow their instincts, and above all, magnificent risk-takers, and unafraid to run ahead of the great popular tide."

This is a great read for both those who have already embraced their creative potential as well as for those who have not. Shekerjian surfaces the common threads of attitudes and behaviors that foster creativity. Creatives can use this book to build on the "why" of their creativity with confidence.

For those interested in developing their creative potential, the book eliminates the mystery and lays out the "how" of being creative. But to be successful, one needs to make an "act of faith" in the "act of doing." Shekerjian's "doing" includes:

1. Find your talent.

2. Commit to it and make it shine

3. Don't be afraid of risk. Or even failure, which if seen in its proper light, brings insight and opportunity.

4. Find courage by looking to something stronger and better than your puny vulnerable self.

5. No lusting after quick resolutions. Relax. Stay loose.

6. Get to know yourself; understand your needs and the specific conditions you favor.

7. Respect, too, your culture.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Ruth Henriquez Lyon VINE VOICE on August 21, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author of this book tracked down and interviewed 40 recipients of the McArthur "genius award." This award is a cash grant given to creative people in many different fields; it enables them to work on, or not work on, whatever they please and not have to worry about money.
There was much about the creative process in this book that was new to me. Reading interviews with people who use the process every day is a lot different than reading about creativity in a "how to be creative" book. You get more of a sense of the range of ways people produce outstanding work. Shekerjian introduces us to people who are not only in the arts, but also science, teaching, ecology and conservation, political science, social services, and other fields. Many of these people are extremely quirky, and there's a lesson in that: trying to be like others, and be liked, is not the way to uncover your potential.
Shekerjian's prose is conversational and easy to read. However, at times I found it to be overly flowery and thus distracting. There were many involved descriptions of interview settings, which seemed superfluous. I found myself doing a lot of skimming to get to the core subject matter. On the whole, though, it's a well-written book, by an author who is clearly in love with her subject matter.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 8, 1998
Format: Paperback
Being creative can take many shapes and forms. Find what works for you. This book offers many strategies that work have worked for accomplished people. Certain under-lying principals commonly used by creative people are illuminated. i enjoyed the book and recommended it to my teenage child. regards to all....
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By John H. Hwung on November 27, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
By looking at the title of this book, you would have thought this book is about geniuses, the winners of the MacArthur Awards. But no. This book covers four topics and none of them well:
1. The award recipients
2. Discover the creative traits of these award recipients
3. Dissect the creative process
4. Discuss how we the average people can apply the creative process

If you are looking for min-biographies of the 40 recipients of MacArthur Awards in this book, you will be sorely disappointed. This book is more about the interpretation and discussion of the creative process by the author than the geniuses of the MacArthur Awards themselves.

One major drawback of this book is that Shekerjian does not stick to one writing style. In the first chapter of PART ONE of this book with the interview of Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, Shekerjian revealed that Gould's creative genius is in making connections among various fields. It would be great if she continues in this style of writing in the following chapters discussing about special creative traits of other award winners. But she doesn't.

Another major drawback of this book is that Shekerjian tries to tackle too many subjects at the same time. She tries to cover the 40 award winners. She tries to dissect the creativity process. She tries to commoditize the creative process for average folks. In the end, none is done well.

Yet another major drawback of this book is the treatment or detailing of 40 award winners and the creativity traits. For example, Peter Sellars occupied many pages, while Stephen Gould (described as the person second only to Darwin in the study of evolution) gets only four and a half.
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