Over the past few years, I've had the rare opportunity to interview and get to know a wide range of MacArthur Fellows, nearly 70 in total. Chances are you're more familiar with the fellowship by its pop moniker, the "Genius Award." Here's what may startle you: The recipients are not geniuses. More surprising still, they are just like you.

There's much to be gleaned from these two simple truths, about genius and about what it means to be a leader, in thought, industry, or otherwise. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First there's that award and the misleading mythology around it that impedes us from seeing the truth.

The public story is this: Every year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation chooses the most creative souls on the planet and gives them two things--the title of creative, and a lot of unrestricted funds to keep on creating. On the surface, it's a pretty sweet deal. We outsiders walk away from the annual announcements thinking something like, "Wow! Look at those geniuses!" and also, "I'm not one of them." Not so fast.

As with genius, there's more to this award than meets the eye. First, it isn't an honor you can apply for; it's bestowed on you. Second, it isn't given for things you've done but instead for your thinking and potential--as if a bet is being placed that good ideas will come. And third, neither the Foundation nor the Fellows refer to it as the Genius Award. In fact, the Fellows I spoke with shudder more than just a bit at the mention of the word genius. Why?

Ironically, the recipients have found the genius moniker to be a burden as much as an honor. And if you've ever been in a leadership position, or garnered notice for success or a good idea, I'm betting you can relate. You're asked to shoulder a mantel of responsibility and expectations--some anticipated, some not, and some you yourself wonder if you are up to meeting. You are interchangeably lauded and disdained for getting something your competitors and peers did not. They are surprised, jealous, and gunning for you now, when before they barely noticed you existed. Oh yes, and now everyone expects you to be brilliant all the time. Sound familiar?

The truth is these folks are just like you, in many respects, but especially in seven key ways that, taken together, should remind you that genius lies within you, too--and not in a title or award.

7 ways those so-called geniuses are just like you

  1. They're real people. Like the individuals themselves, no one who knows these people sees them as geniuses, not before or after their award. As law professor Sylvia Law's 11-year-old son said to her when her fellowship ran out, "Well, I guess you're an ex-genius now." Every day as a leader, creator, or MacArthur Fellow is a human day.
  2. They have fears, get stuck, and doubt. No matter how many times they succeed, the next time they create brings the same old feelings. The good news, however, as poet Richard Kenney told me, is that even when some of those fears came true, "they were never nearly at the scale I'd imagined."
  3. They push through fear. How, you might ask? Fellow and serial founder Stuart Kauffman points to "wonder." As Stu says, the very things that help us create are the same things that get us unstuck or past fear: wonder, imagination, and making room for both.
  4. Their brilliance isn't always recognized. That hero's tale we are so familiar with? It's circular. We are forever starting over, and past successes don't mean automatic acceptance of our next brilliant ideas by others. "No idea is so great as to avoid that," community developer Lorna Bourg said. Inviting others to help shape it, however, is a powerful way to make it real.
  5. Their unfolding is gradual. The things we declare as genius creations take time. "Creativity is a 'never done' kind of work," Fellow Ernie Cortes told me. So too is the work of evolving one's own genius.
  6. They have a need for play and wonder. "Everyone of us carries pipe dreams," conservationist Ted Ames shared. Yes, we must get concrete and deliver. But we are wise to keep playing with "what if." As Ted reminds us, "That's where the fun comes in."
  7. Creative geniuses remain people. There isn't a single creative leader I've ever met who did not get knocked back down now and then, have something other than their work to tend to, or dream that more was possible. These realities are humbling, helpful, and fully human.

Far from being different and distant from us, the geniuses in our midst are simply aware that each of us is creative, attuned to the fact that brilliance takes time, and cognizant of the fact that genius is simply another term for shaping who we are--as leaders, creators, and people in perpetuity, and hopefully to grand effect now and then.