What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?
Skip to content
Podcast | Insight Unpacked Season 1: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them
Careers Oct 4, 2021

What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?

New research reveals a recipe for success.

Collage of sculptor's work culminating in Artist of the Year recognition

Riley Mann

Based on the research of

Lu Liu

Nima Dehmamy

Jillian Chown

C. Lee Giles

Dashun Wang

Inspiration struck Dashun Wang in a museum.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

Some time ago, he was visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and noticed something interesting. “The paintings narrowed in style and subject after Van Gogh’s move to the South of France in the late 1800s,” says Wang, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. That shift, it turned out, signaled the start of the artist’s most successful period, including iconic pieces like Starry Night Over the Rhone and Van Gogh’s Chair.

The observation gave Wang a much-needed clue to a research question he’d pondered for years: What triggers a hot streak?

Hot streaks,” or career-defining periods of unusual success, have been observed in most every creative domain, from Einstein’s “Miracle Year” of groundbreaking discoveries, including the Theory of Relativity, to director Peter Jackson’s box-office-smash Lord of the Rings trilogy. Wang’s previous research suggested that hot streaks appear at random during a career, like a comet with no predictable timing.

“Hot streaks seem to happen for most everyone,” Wang says. “But it seemed like they come about by ‘magic’ or just randomly.” That is, no one had found a reliable precedent to these high-success periods.

Until now.

Inspired by that trip to the Van Gogh Museum, Wang and his colleagues designed a study that used AI to analyze millions of works by artists, film directors, and scientists, in search of potential hot-streak-triggering mechanisms.

They found that, across domains, hot streaks are typically preceded by a specific combination of exploration—more diverse work across styles and focus areas—followed by exploitation—a narrower focus on a particular category of work that drives outsized success.

“We’ve found one of the first identifiable regularities related to the onset of a hot streak,” says coauthor Jillian Chown, a Kellogg associate professor of management and organizations. “It can help individuals and organizations understand the types of activities to engage in, and the optimal sequence to use for bigger impact.”

AI-Driven Analysis

Before this study, the biggest impediment to understanding what triggers a hot streak was not knowing how to characterize creative works in a standard way, across people’s careers. What constitutes an artist’s style, for example? How would one categorize a filmmaker’s diverse productions?

To address that problem, Wang and Chown, along with lead author Lu Liu, a PhD student at Kellogg’s Center for Science of Science and Innovation, Nima Dehmamy, a research assistant professor at Kellogg, and C. Lee Giles at the Pennsylvania State University, developed a deep neural network for the three domains of focus: paintings, film, and science. For example, the AI systems used visual-recognition technology to analyze the types of subjects and brushstrokes in paintings, and identified film genre and style by analyzing plot summaries, cast, and other information available online. They used this innovative method to examine the careers of 2,128 artists, 4,337 directors, and 20,040 scientists—millions of works in total.

“It has to be the combination of exploration followed by exploitation: experimenting in different areas, learning different domains and approaches, then really hunkering down and developing that body of high-impact work.”

— Jillian Chown

The neural network enabled the researchers to capture each person’s style, areas of focus, and other dimensions related to their career output, to understand how their body of work evolved over time, in the context of exploration and exploitation.

To understand success and impact—the basis for a hot streak—the study used measures that are generally agreed upon to show success in each field: number of citations of scientific works, art-auction prices, and IMDB film ratings.

“Our approach allowed us to correlate hot streaks with each individual’s creative trajectory, to understand what might predict these streaks,” Wang says.

A Recipe for Success

The results make clear the “recipe” for a hot streak: exploration of creative options followed by exploitation of a specific “lane” of work ultimately leading to greater success. This held true across all three domains studied.

For example, director Peter Jackson made films that fell into horror, comedy, drama, and other genres (reflecting a period of exploration) before hitting it much bigger with the Lord of the Rings fantasy franchise. Analysis of painter Jackson Pollock’s work, similarly, showed exploration of a wide range of styles before the focused “drip period” (1946–1950) that elevated him to global fame.

The research found, further, that exploration or exploitation by itself is not enough for a hot streak. That is, only the specific exploration-exploitation sequence led to the highest increase in likelihood of a hot streak: hot streaks following that sequence were 20.5 percent, 13.8 percent, and 19.2 percent more likely for artists, directors, and scientists, respectively, versus after a random point in a given career. Exploration and exploitation alone were associated with no such increase.

“If you just do one or the other, you don’t get the full impact,” Chown says. “It has to be the combination of exploration followed by exploitation: experimenting in different areas, learning different domains and approaches, then really hunkering down and developing that body of high-impact work.”

Wang agrees: “Our work shows that people experiment and likely gain new skills from work in different subfields, and then help find the best one to exploit, which seem crucial for hot streak.”

In line with this, the study found that the hot-streak area of exploitation usually isn’t the most recent one explored, supporting the idea that people are gathering information and experience across a number of areas then moving forward with the best-fitting one.

Promoting and Supporting Hot Streaks

The research has implications for how individuals and organizations can spur their own hot streaks.

Individuals pursuing any creative endeavor now know that the exploration-exploitation sequence is most likely to lead to a hot streak. “This combination of creative activities is particularly potent,” Wang says. In practice, this might mean exploring multiple subfields to find the right fit—such as a scientist pursuing research in multiple biology domains before settling on one of greater focus.

Organizations can also make use of hot-streak insights. Academic institutions and grantors, for instance, can analyze professors’ and researchers’ career paths carefully to see who’s more likely to hit a near-term hot streak, and support that individual through advancement, funding, or other resources.

Businesses, similarly, can apply this understanding of hot-streak dynamics to decide how they manage intellectual property.

“A firm could look at how concentrated their patents are in certain areas to understand their pattern of exploration and exploitation related to innovation” Chown says, and then make adjustments to work toward a hot streak. Similarly, a pharmaceutical or biotech business could examine how it works within and across products for different therapeutic areas—cancer, diabetes, etc.—as it seeks to explore and exploit.

The research may also have implications for how organizations should structure exploration and exploitation, and how they should incorporate these steps into business strategy.

Some firms have different groups working on exploration and exploitation, for example, separating out a research and development team from product teams. “That runs the risk of not letting individuals have their own exploration and exploitation sequence,” Chown says, because a given team member would work only on exploration or exploitation, rather than both.

The researchers point out there’s much more to know about what triggers a hot streak. “It would be valuable to know what people’s motivations for exploring certain things were,” Chown says.

Similarly, it’s not yet known why an individual makes the move from exploration to exploitation. For example, “it’s still not clear how much exploration is the ‘right’ amount before moving into exploitation,” Wang says.

But even with so much left to know, Wang says, “we now finally know hot streaks don’t just happen by magic. It’s about a person exploring different areas, then finding the right space to exploit for greater success.”

Featured Faculty

Visiting Pre-Doctoral Fellow

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Professor of Management & Organizations; Professor of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences (Courtesy)

About the Writer

Sachin Waikar is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

About the Research

Liu, Lu, Nima Dehmamy, Jillian Chown, C. Lee Giles, and Dashun Wang. 2021. “Understanding the Onset of Hot Streaks across Artistic, Cultural, and Scientific Careers.” Nature Communications.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  2. What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?
    New research reveals a recipe for success.
    Collage of sculptor's work culminating in Artist of the Year recognition
  3. What Went Wrong with FTX—and What’s Next for Crypto?
    One key issue will be introducing regulation without strangling innovation, a fintech expert explains.
    stock trader surrounded by computer monitors
  4. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  5. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  6. What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?
    Hint: it’s not the product itself.
    standing woman speaking with man seated on stool
  7. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  8. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. Yes, Consumers Care if Your Product Is Ethical
    New research shows that morality matters—but it’s in the eye of the beholder.
    woman chooses organic lettuce in grocery
  11. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  12. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  13. Product Q&A Forums Hold a Lot of Promise. Here’s How to Make Them Work.
    The key to these online communities, where users can ask and answer questions, is how many questions get useful answers.
    man sits at computer reading Q&A forum
  14. What the New Climate Bill Means for the U.S.—and the World
    The Inflation Reduction Act won’t reverse inflation or halt climate change, but it's still a big deal.
    energy bill with solar panels wind turbines and pipelines
  15. Post-War Reconstruction Is a Good Investment
    Ukraine’s European neighbors will need to make a major financial commitment to help rebuild its economy after the war. Fortunately, as the legacy of the post–World War II Marshall Plan shows, investing in Ukraine's future will also serve Europe's own long-term interests.
    two people look out over a city
  16. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  17. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  18. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
More in Careers