When You’re Hot, You’re Hot: Career Successes Come in Clusters
Skip to content
Innovation Careers Jul 11, 2018

When You’re Hot, You’re Hot: Career Suc­cess­es Come in Clusters

Bursts of bril­liance hap­pen for almost every­one. Explore the hot streaks” of thou­sands of direc­tors, artists and sci­en­tists in our graphic.

An artist has a hot streak in her career.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Lu Liu

Yang Wang

C. Lee Giles

Chaoming Song

Roberta Sinatra

Dashun Wang

In 1905, Albert Ein­stein was on a roll. Between March and June of that year — which sci­en­tists refer to as his annus mirabilis, or mir­a­cle year” — the leg­endary physi­cist fin­ished three dif­fer­ent papers that would rad­i­cal­ly change how we think about space and time, and pave the way for quan­tum physics. 

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

And that’s not even get­ting into the sum­mer,” mar­vels Dashun Wang, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kellogg. 

To Wang, Einstein’s big year posed a puz­zle. In a pre­vi­ous study look­ing at the careers of more than 10,000 sci­en­tists, Wang had found that the tim­ing of a researcher’s most influ­en­tial paper was com­plete­ly ran­dom — it was equal­ly like­ly to come at any giv­en year in their career, be it the begin­ning, mid­dle, or end. But the con­cept of a mir­a­cle year” seemed to chal­lenge that conclusion. 

What are the odds, if every­thing is ran­dom?” Wang wondered.

In a new paper, Wang inves­ti­gates whether hot-streak” peri­ods like Einstein’s are more than just a lucky coin­ci­dence — in sci­ence, and in oth­er fields as well. He teamed up with vis­it­ing stu­dent Lu Liu and Kel­logg post-doc­tor­al stu­dent Yang Wang, as well as Chaom­ing Song of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi, Rober­ta Sina­tra of Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty, and Lee Giles of Penn­syl­va­nia State University. 

Look­ing at the career his­to­ries of thou­sands of sci­en­tists, artists, and film direc­tors, the team found evi­dence that hot streaks are both real and ubiq­ui­tous, with vir­tu­al­ly every­one expe­ri­enc­ing one at some point in their career. While the tim­ing of an individual’s great­est suc­cess­es is indeed ran­dom, their top hits are high­ly like­ly to appear in close proximity.

If we know where your best work is, then we know very well where your sec­ond-best work is, and your third, because they’re just around the corner.”

And while more research is need­ed to deter­mine what caus­es these bursts of genius, Wang says that the find­ings shed impor­tant new light on the pat­terns under­ly­ing suc­cess in all fields, and could be used to improve deci­sions about tenure, pro­mo­tions, and hiring. 

If we know where your best work is, then we know very well where your sec­ond-best work is, and your third,” he says, because they’re just around the corner.” 

Pin­point­ing Hot Streaks 

Wang nick­named his ear­li­er paper on the tim­ing of sci­en­tif­ic suc­cess­es the hope project.” By demon­strat­ing that a scientist’s most-cit­ed paper was equal­ly like­ly to appear in any giv­en year, his find­ings refut­ed the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that researchers in their 50s or 60s were past their prime. The only rea­son that ear­ly-career hits were more com­mon, explains Wang, is because younger sci­en­tists tend to be more pro­lif­ic. So if you keep pro­duc­ing, maybe your biggest work is yet to come,” he says — hence, plen­ty of hope. 

But what hap­pens after that big hit? Wang could imag­ine two very dif­fer­ent scenarios.

If the tim­ing of every paper a sci­en­tist wrote was tru­ly ran­dom, then regres­sion towards the mean” should set in — mean­ing their next paper was more like­ly to be aver­age than spectacular. 

On the oth­er hand, there were log­i­cal rea­sons to think that one strong paper might beget anoth­er. If I pro­duced a good work, I feel like I learned the trick,” says Wang. Now I feel like I’m equipped to do anoth­er work that’s just as good or even better.” 

Work­ing with Liu, a PhD stu­dent at Kel­logg, Wang began to design an exper­i­ment. The idea: Let’s not just focus on the biggest hit, but let’s also look at the sec­ond-biggest hit, and the third-biggest hit,” he explains. Their goal was to deter­mine whether there was some kind of sta­tis­ti­cal­ly mean­ing­ful pat­tern in the tim­ing of one’s great­est achievements. 

Using Google Schol­ar and Web of Sci­ence, Wang and Liu obtained data on research papers pub­lished by more than 20,000 sci­en­tists, which includ­ed the num­ber of cita­tions each paper received in its first ten years. 

Then they decid­ed to expand the analy­sis beyond acad­e­mia. We real­ized, Gee, if this hap­pens, it might be in all dif­fer­ent kinds of careers,’” Wang says. 

That idea was inspired by Ale­jan­dro González Iñár­ritu, the direc­tor of Bird­man and The Revenant, explains Wang. He won two Oscars back-to-back for best direc­tor. And that’s where I real­ized, this is not just sci­en­tists. This story’s much much bigger.” 

So they col­lect­ed data on the careers of artists and firm direc­tors. To gauge suc­cess, they obtained the auc­tion prices of art­works pro­duced by 3,480 painters, sculp­tors, and oth­er artists. And they combed film data­base IMDb for the career his­to­ries of 6,233 direc­tors, using the IMDb rat­ings to approx­i­mate the success. 


Watch this video to learn how to use the inter­ac­tive graph­ic below it:


(Rel­a­tive) Tim­ing Is Everything

At first, what the researchers found seemed to con­firm Wang’s ear­li­er con­clu­sion: tak­en indi­vid­u­al­ly, each of an artist’s three most expen­sive art­works, a director’s three top-rat­ed movies, and a scientist’s three most cit­ed pub­li­ca­tions appeared to come at com­plete­ly unpre­dictable points in that person’s career. 

It looks like everything’s just ran­dom, a lot­tery all the way,” says Wang. But real­ly, the puz­zle start­ed to crack when we looked at, What about their rel­a­tive timing?’” 

The researchers cal­cu­lat­ed how far apart an individual’s top-three hits appeared from one anoth­er. Then they ran a sim­u­la­tion that ran­dom­ized the order in which each work occurred dur­ing an individual’s career and again cal­cu­lat­ed how far apart their top-three works appeared. If the hot streak was a myth, then the hits in the real data should not be any clos­er togeth­er than in the ran­dom­ized data.

In all three fields, about 90 per­cent of indi­vid­u­als had at least one hot streak.

But that was not what they found. It turned out, an individual’s top-two works were rough­ly 50 per­cent more like­ly to occur back-to-back than sheer chance would dic­tate. Sim­i­lar­ly, an individual’s sec­ond- and third-best works, and their first- and third-best works, were unusu­al­ly like­ly to be clus­tered together. 

In all three fields, about 90 per­cent of indi­vid­u­als had at least one hot streak. So, for exam­ple, there’s Einstein’s annus mirabilis, but also The Lord of the Rings series for Peter Jack­son, the drip peri­od” for Jack­son Pol­lock, and Vin­cent van Gogh’s pro­duc­tion in one year alone after he moved from Paris to South France of The Yel­low House, Van Gogh’s Chair, Bed­room in Arles, The Night Café, Café Ter­race at Night, Star­ry Night Over the Rhone, and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sun­flow­ers.

Drilling down into the data, the researchers observed that most indi­vid­u­als expe­ri­enced at least one hot-streak peri­od. (While some lucky peo­ple had mul­ti­ple, the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion had exact­ly one.) The length of the hot streak var­ied depend­ing on the career, with artists’ most fre­quent­ly last­ing around 5.7 years, direc­tors’ last­ing 5.2, and sci­en­tists’ last­ing 3.7.

Fur­ther­more, those whose work had a small­er aver­age impact (low­er cita­tion counts, auc­tion prices, and rat­ings) in their non-hot-streak days saw a larg­er rel­a­tive boost dur­ing their hot-streak period. 

It’s Essen­tial­ly Dou­bled My Hope” 

The authors sus­pect­ed that there might be a sim­ple expla­na­tion for the hot streaks across dis­ci­plines: pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. If a per­son hap­pened to pro­duce more movies, art, or sci­en­tif­ic papers dur­ing a cer­tain peri­od, it would make sense that their best works clus­tered togeth­er dur­ing that peri­od, sim­ply because they had more chances to cre­ate a hit.

How­ev­er, the authors found no per­cep­ti­ble change in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty dur­ing hot streaks. 

Wang hopes to look more close­ly in future research at what does cause a hot streak to begin and end. But he empha­sizes that the cur­rent results are mean­ing­ful on their own. It doesn’t mat­ter what dri­ves the phe­nom­e­non — the phenomenon’s there,” he says. 

The impor­tance of that phe­nom­e­non comes through in one of the authors’ final find­ings: when their sta­tis­ti­cal mod­els did not inten­tion­al­ly account for hot streaks, they sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed how suc­cess­ful a person’s career would be overall. 

Because what you pro­duce dur­ing a hot streak is sub­stan­tial­ly bet­ter, your hot-streak peri­od fun­da­men­tal­ly deter­mines your entire career’s impact,” Wang says. 

The study could change how we think about up-and-com­ing tal­ent. While Wang cau­tions against over­in­ter­pret­ing the results — Imag­ine a per­son goes to a tenure com­mit­tee and says, Just give me two more years, my hot streak is com­ing!’ That’s going to be laugh­able” — he does believe that tenure com­mit­tees and recruiters over­look hot streaks at their own per­il. We need to think about dif­fer­ent ways and poli­cies for us to iden­ti­fy and nur­ture indi­vid­u­als with long-last­ing impact.” 

If Wang thinks of his ear­li­er research as his hope project,” how does he feel now, know­ing that a few years of rapid-fire suc­cess­es may define his own career as a researcher? 

It’s essen­tial­ly dou­bled my hope,” he says, since almost every­body gets one streak, and there is no pre­dict­ing when it might arrive.

Wang hap­pi­ly dreams about the day that his own hot streak kicks in. When that time comes, it’s not just one big break,” he says, it’s one after anoth­er for a cou­ple years. I real­ly look for­ward to that.” 

Featured Faculty

Dashun Wang

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Jake J. Smith is a freelance writer and radio producer in Chicago.

About the Research

Liu, Lu, Yang Wang, Roberta Sinatra, C. Lee Giles, Chaoming Song & Dashun Wang. 2018. Hot streaks in artistic, cultural, and scientific careers. Nature.

Read the original

Suggested For You

Most Popular

Organizations

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

Leadership

Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.

Careers

Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

Marketing

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.