Do “Geniuses” Handle Money Better Than The Rest Of Us?

Beetee-Mockingjay Hunger Games computer techThe New York Times takes on a subject near and dear to our hearts, deciding to find out whether those creative individuals lucky enough to receive six-figure MacArthur Fellowships cope with their windfalls better than ordinary folks. The results — which could be titled, How Geniuses Do Money — are instructive.

There are plenty of studies that show how ruinous lump sums of money can be for recipients. Lottery winners can end up as life’s losers — at least those who make the news for ending up broke a few years after winning millions.

And the financial failures of star athletes are well documented. Mike Tyson, the boxer, made millions but ended up in debt. And there’s Lenny Dykstra, the baseball great who served six months for bankruptcy fraud, as well as the fleet of football players who have fast cars but little else when their careers are cut short.

But if a group of geniuses get phone calls out of the blue one autumn morning, would they have more to show for the $625,000 windfall at the end of five years? It turns out, judging from a sampling of MacArthur fellows, they would.

None of these grantees receives his or her award for being good with money — though perhaps the fact that so many of them have made it to mid-life without trust funds and without giving up speaks for itself. They are dedicated, musicians and mathematicians alike, focused and passionate. And they make surprising, often inspiring choices as to what to do with their no-strings-attached loot.

Even though [Dr. Otto] grew up quite poor, she said, she never thought of spending the money on herself and said that her research would not benefit from extra funding. (She uses mathematical models to advance research on genetics and evolution.)

“The nature of what I do means that time is more precious than money for my research,” she said. “When I received the MacArthur it wasn’t, ‘Now I can do that study I wanted to do.’ I felt I was very supported by my university and by grants. But what I did feel was that as a scientist and a person I could have more influence” by giving it away.

So that’s what she is doing. So far, she has made three gifts of the entire annual amount to the Nature Trust of British Columbia, an environmental conservation program in Indonesia, and a fund at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches, to pay student researchers working on conservation issues.

A neuroscientist can now buy her lab assistants pizza and Chinese food when they work late, as well as had out merit bonuses. A marine biologist is able to get her own research institute off the ground (into the water?). A poet, as we’ve discussed here before, decided to give her fortune away to make life more bearable for professional caregivers. And a saxophonist, whose situation is perhaps the most easy-to-relate-to, is able to stop living hand to mouth, but he continues to budget and live frugally. Just in case.

Related: As a society, we need to get better about recognizing that genius can grow up in poverty too, and encouraging it from an early age.

Many promising students, particularly those attending poorer schools, just weren’t getting referred [to Gifted and Talented programs].

That all changed after [Broward] county [in Florida] began universally screening its second-graders. The screening test flagged thousands of children as potentially gifted, and school psychologists started working overtime to evaluate all of them. Out of that process, Broward identified an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006, according to Card and Giuliano’s research. The impact on racial equity was huge: 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students were now entering gifted programs in third grade. …

“There are gifted kids everywhere.”

Of the 300 additional gifted students identified at the height of the screening program, about 240 were low-income or English-learning children who scored at least 116 on the IQ test. Among those 240 children from disadvantaged backgrounds, about one-fifth showed exceedingly high IQ scores, over 130. All of these genius-level children, according to Card and Giuliano, would not have been caught by the old system of recommendations.

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