Elton John hit a hot streak early in his prodigious musical career. Of the thirty studio albums John has released so far, the five or six most commonly cited as his best were released across the four-year period from 1970 through 1973. This streak ran from his eponymous second album to his magnum opus, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It would be safe even to extend this hot streak into 1975, really. Because John had six consecutive albums hit number one on Billboard’s US album charts, from 1972’s Honky Chateau to 1975’s Rock of the Westies.
Jackson Pollock hit a hot streak, too, but his was more mid-career than John’s. Although Pollock created many major works from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, his most famous paintings were made during his four-year “drip period,” from 1947 to 1950. Pollock was catapulted to fame during this period by a four-page feature in Life magazine, and he had many important exhibitions during this time, including three at The Betty Parsons Gallery. Pollock would abruptly abandon his drip style at the height of his fame.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s hot streak came late in her career. A teacher and farmer for much of her early adult life, she didn’t begin her writing career until she was in her forties. For decades, she mainly wrote columns for farm papers and articles for magazines such as McCall’s and The Country Gentleman. Her literary hot streak didn’t begin until she was 65, when she published the first book in her “Little House” series of children’s novels, Little House in the Big Woods.
Characteristics of a hot streak
Describing hot streaks as “bursts of high impact works occurring in sequence,” one group of researchers examined the career histories of artists, film directors, and scientists and identified the following key characteristics of hot streaks:
- Most people only have one hot streak in their career, two if they’re lucky. More than two is very rare.
- Hot streaks are random, and can occur at any age or career stage.
- A hot streak typically lasts four or five years.
- People produce their best work during a hot streak, but it isn’t always their most prolific period.
The researchers caution, however, that while the timing between creative works in their data set did follow highly predictable patterns, it is difficult to identify the true origins of hot streaks.
Stimulating a hot streak
A complete understanding of the nature of creative hot streaks would no doubt make it easier for people to fully realize their potential and experience major breakthroughs. However, it is very difficult to predict when or whether prior success will increase the likelihood of future success.
While it may be difficult to pinpoint the beginning of a hot streak or its underlying causes, hot streaks tend to be associated with a sequence of exploration followed by exploitation. That is, a person experiments with diverse interest areas or styles before narrowing their focus and becoming more specialized.
Exploration involves trying new things, or learning more about things with which we are only casually familiar. When we explore, we do a lot of sampling, testing, tinkering, experimenting, noodling, and otherwise just playing around. We investigate creative options and consider more rewarding paths or more profitable opportunities. We gather information and we do a lot of analysis.
Elton John didn’t start right off recording albums filled with the melodic, contoured pop songs and poignant ballads we know him for today. Before that, he was in a blues band called Bluesology, played solo gigs as a pianist in pubs around London, and was a staff songwriter for a British indie record label.
Likewise, Jackson Pollock didn’t jump right into the action painting and abstract expressionist work we associate him most strongly with. For several years he was an easel painter with the WPA Federal Art Project, producing mostly landscapes and figurative scenes. He then gravitated to more semiabstract work influenced by Spanish painters and Mexican muralists. After receiving a stipend from Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock experimented with a broad range of imagery and technique, seeking to express and refine his personal style.
Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t even start writing until midlife, and she didn’t start writing fiction until quite late in life. Her earlier writing had been mostly expository and journalistic.
Something that John, Pollock, and Wilder have in common – and have in common with most people who experience hot streaks – is that they didn’t just dive into something and focus only on that aspect of their craft. They all went through periods of experimentation and exploration.
Exploration allows us to figure out what works best for us, or what we are best suited to do, or what we find the most rewarding. If we commit to one option without exploring others, we run the risk of devoting a lot of energy and effort to a path or pursuit that we later find to be suboptimal.
Even within our chosen craft, we must usually explore a variety of methods, styles, or techniques before we know what we can best exploit to realize the most satisfying return.
Exploitation involves narrowing our focus and refining our approach. Our style or technique becomes highly developed, and we begin to produce impactful work. We build knowledge and expertise, elevate our capabilities, and increase our mastery. We find ways to profit from our work, and ways to maximize those profits.
At this level, we are fully focused on developing our strengths, rather than improving our perceived weaknesses. We move from good to great, or maybe even outstanding. We have thoroughly explored and tested the range of our talent, and we can now demonstrate our potential to a high degree. We are breathing rarefied air. We often feel like we’re in “the zone.”
When we’re in the zone, our best effort seems almost like no effort at all. Our best work just seems to pour right out of us, and we want to keep that river of creativity flowing. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser put it simply: “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”
Largely, we explore looking for something we can exploit. When we find it, we kick into high gear looking for the payout, which may or may not be monetary. Sometimes, extraordinary results are all we need to motivate us, and all other benefits may seem superfluous.
As Jonas Salk said, “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”
The tradeoff between exploration and exploitation
It might be easy enough to establish that hot streaks follow a sequence of exploration followed by exploitation. But how do we know when to stop exploring and start exploiting?
Most of the available research correlating creative hot streaks to the exploration-exploitation sequence do not offer any explanation as to what might catalyze the transition from exploration to exploitation. Nor do they provide much insight into the precise timing of such a transition.
In reality, the sequence is probably a continuum. We never really stop exploring. Even if we hit a hot streak and are furiously cranking out the best work of our lives, we are always experimenting with new techniques, consuming new information, and looking for new opportunities.
Also, any transition from exploration to exploitation is likely highly individualistic, and could not be generalized to everyone. Factors such as changing market conditions, social network structure, and feedback from peers could all cause us to decide the time is right to exploit something we had previously only explored.
Our own biases, preferences, profit motive, desire for status, or tolerance for risk will also influence our decision to exploit. Any number of internal or external influences could motivate us to exploit one opportunity versus another.
One group of researchers conducted a cross-disciplinary synthesis of literature on exploration and exploitation, and found a number of environmental, individual, and social factors that might influence the tradeoff between exploration and exploitation.
Some of the environmental factors they identified included the depletion and replenishment of resources, available information about options, the cost of exploration versus the value of the reward, the probability of gains versus losses, and the structure, stability, and predictability of the environment.
Individual factors they identified included cognitive capacity, aspiration level, prior knowledge of the distribution of payoffs, the expectation of risk, demographic factors such as age or gender, and even levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Social factors included the competitiveness of the environment, the availability of social information, and whether or not the decision to explore or exploit must be made in congress with others.
Given the number of variables involved, trying to predict a hot streak might seem like folly. We know we must explore a lot of different focus areas and styles, and we know we have to choose one of those options to further develop. As far as a specific trigger for exploitation, however, that decision appears to be highly personal – and maybe highly intuitive to boot.
We can set the stage for a hot streak, but there is no clear recipe for making one happen. However, if we think we are on the cusp of a hot streak – or if we even just strongly believe we are on the right path – there are things we can do to increase the likelihood of success.
The right mindset for a hot streak
We might not be able to control all the variables that determine when we hit a hot streak, but we can control our mindset. The right disposition may be one of the biggest hot streak determinants anyway.
One study of professional golfers examined various psychological characteristics to see how these tendencies related to golf performance. The study found that while pro golfers who made the cut had higher levels of cognitive and somatic anxiety before the competition, they were skilled at using relaxation techniques and attentional and emotional control strategies to cope.
Also, the highest performers were motivated more by performance-approach goal and less by performance-avoidance goal. That is, their motivation to demonstrate their competence versus other golfers far outweighed their fear of performing poorly.
Another study (also of golfers) supports the idea that psychological skills – particularly strategies for managing emotional responses to short-run success or failure – should be an integral part of performance training. The findings suggest that the negative emotional impact of poor performance exceeds the positive emotional impact of prior success. The best performers are skilled at regulating their emotions, giving them the ability to perform consistently regardless of recent success or failure. In other words, a cool head beats a hot hand.
Just as our emotions affect how we evaluate opportunity, they also affect how we choose to explore, what we choose to exploit, and how we deal with success and failure. The best golfers use attentional and emotional control strategies and relaxation techniques to manage their hot (and cold) streaks, and we probably should use similar methods in our own pursuits.
Short-term success should boost our confidence, but we can’t let it cause us to become overconfident. Short-term failure should be cause for reflection, but we shouldn’t let it destroy our confidence.
Optimism has been shown to boost creativity, but we don’t want to overestimate the likelihood of a desirable outcome, and we don’t want to underestimate the probability of a setback. Early success may make us more confident, but we don’t want to overestimate our knowledge or skill just because things went well.
We don’t have to predict a hot streak to have one
It’s not that hard to look back at a long, distinguished career, identify a string of successes, and label it a “hot streak.” However, trying to identify the exact onset of said hot streak – and all the reasons it occurred – is a whole different ball of worms.
Similarly, trying to predict a hot streak may be nearly impossible.
On the other hand, we don’t necessarily have to predict when or even whether something will happen to prepare for it – or to take steps to try and make it happen.
It seems clear that we are much more likely to experience a hot streak if we have explored a wide range of career or creative options. Some people get extremely lucky and fall right into something that suits them particularly well. For most of us, though, it’s hard to find the path that will allow us to best develop and demonstrate our potential without trying a lot of different things.
The tricky part isn’t trying new things. It’s deciding which new thing should become our thing.
The precise reasons why someone stops exploring and starts exploiting are not well understood. This is the heart of the hot streak predictability problem. As researchers form Princeton and the University of Pittsburgh explain, “There is no known optimal policy for trading off exploration and exploitation in general, even when the objectives are well specified.”
A lot of individual and environmental factors will help determine which explored option we will choose to exploit. Even if we have a clear vision of our goal, there are often just too many variables to predict exactly which path will get us there soonest. Or which path will make us the most money. Or which path will be the most fun.
We can explore a lot of options. We can let our values, interests, goals, and circumstances help us decide which option we want to wholeheartedly pursue. We can prepare ourselves emotionally to handle success and failure with a clear head.
And if we find ourselves in the middle of a hot streak, we probably won’t spend too much time and energy trying to figure out how we got there.
We’ll have more work to do.