More than a quarter of the newest winners of the MacArthur “genius” grants, announced Thursday, are 50 and up. Seven of the 25 recipients are older adults whose professions and accomplishments span disciplines ranging from computer science to social justice to investigative journalism.
This year’s oldest recipient is 60-year-old artist and curator Julie Ault, who got her start in the art world in the late 1970s. “For me, being an artist is a way of thinking, and it’s a creative outlook that’s with me all the time,” Ault says in a video interview. “I don’t turn it on or off, it just is.”
The MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called a “genius” grant, is a $625,000 award presented to people who, like Ault, have demonstrated exceptional talent and creativity in their field. It typically comes as a surprise, since there’s no way to apply — instead, winners are chosen through a confidential nomination process. And, because the grant is intended as an investment in someone's potential (rather than a specific project), there are no expectations that the award will be used in a specific way.
Decades of experience certainly don’t hurt one's chance (especially in light of the “10,000-hour rule,” which says it takes that much practice to master a new skill), but this year’s 50-plus winners are also a reminder that achievement has no age limit.
Gregg Gonsalves, 54, for example, is an epidemiologist and global health advocate who dropped out of college in the 1980s in order to pursue AIDS activism. He returned to school in his 40s to earn a degree in biology and, later, a Ph.D. in public health. Gonsalves now uses quantitative approaches and research skills to advocate for the rights of people living with HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis worldwide.
“It’s not a career,” Gonsalves says of his years in the field, “it’s a passion. It’s my life’s work.” A great reminder that passion — and potential — have no expiration date.