Three Longs & Three Shorts

Hot Streaks in Your Career Don’t Happen by Accident

Author: Derek Thompson
Source: The Atlantic (

Hot streak or a purple patch as they call them in sports, refers to glorious periods in an individual’s career. This piece by Derek Thompson is about economist Dashun Wang whose research focuses on understanding these hot streaks, how they occur and if can we consciously cause their occurrence?
“The Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang calls these special bursts of creativity “hot streaks”—a term usually reserved for sports. “Ninety percent of people have a hot streak in their career,” Wang told me. “Most people have just one. Some people have two. It’d be nice to have more.”
In the past few years, Wang has peeled back the mystery of why these special creativity clusters happen and how individuals and companies can multiply and extend them. Three years ago, he co-wrote a paper with researchers at Northwestern, the University of Miami, Penn State, and Central European University, in Budapest, that used large data sets to trace the career outputs of more than 20,000 artists, film directors, and scientists. The researchers found that almost all of them had clusters of highly successful work, as determined by higher-than-average art-auction prices, IMDb film ratings, or scientific-journal citations. “Bursts of high-impact works [are] remarkably universal across diverse domains,” he and his co-authors wrote. Just about everybody has a period in their life when they produce at their best, even if, unlike Aretha, they aren’t pumping out some of the greatest work of the 20th century.
So where do hot streaks come from? And how can each of us plan for one, or two—or 100? Wang spent several years trying to answer that question. His search uncovered mostly dead ends. “The more we tried and the more failed attempts we had, the idea of hot streaks seemed very random,” he said.”
They tried various theories until they chanced upon this:
“This summer, Wang and his co-authors published their first grand theory of the origin of hot streaks. It’s a complicated idea that comes down to three words: Explore, then exploit.
In 1991, the Stanford Graduate School of Business professor James G. March published an influential paper, “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” which broke down work into two big categories: exploring new ideas and exploiting old certainties. Say you’re a car manufacturer. Every year, you must decide between investing in future innovations, such as self-driving software, and finding ways to squeeze new revenue out of existing technologies and materials. Too much fanciful R&D spending, and this year’s profit plummets. Too much emphasis on tweaking existing product lines, and you get squashed by some fresh upstart in a decade.
Individuals face the same choice. Every week, I can write about pretty much whatever I want. I love exploring new ideas and emerging industries. But if I write an article about a totally new subject, it’s possible that I’ll do a bad job, or that nobody will want to read about it. Meanwhile, whenever I write articles about the future of work, a lot of people read them. Should I allow my curiosity to wander into new fields that might be dead ends for my career, or should I double down on becoming a full-time work futurist? It’s the same tension: explore or exploit?
In Wang’s most recent analysis, he found that artists and scientists tend to experiment with diverse styles or topics before their hot streak begins. This period of exploration is followed by a period of creatively productive focus. “Our data shows that people ought to explore a bunch of things at work, deliberate about the best fit for their skills, and then exploit what they’ve learned,” Wang said. This precise sequence—exploration, followed by exploitation—was the single best predictor of the onset of a hot streak.
Wang pointed to Jackson Pollock, the artist known for splashing and dribbling paint on a canvas. When Pollock started painting, in the early 1930s, he experimented with a variety of styles, including abstract art and surrealism reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s work. Suddenly, in the mid-’40s, he honed a mystically messy “drip style,” in which he painted almost exclusively for about four years. In 1949, Life magazine made him a household name and asked if he was “the greatest living painter in the United States.” The next year, at the height of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned his drip method—and started experimenting again, until his death.”