When it comes to creative careers, success can be difficult to achieve and even harder to define. But what if there was a magic formula that could increase your odds of a creative breakthrough?
A new study suggests that this magic formula may well exist. The secret to creativity lies in hitting “hot streaks” or bursts of repeated successes, such as Jackson Pollock’s “drip paintings” beginning in the late 1940s or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s. Published in Naturethe study examines exactly what people do before and during a hot streak. Using artificial intelligence to comb through rich datasets related to artists, film directors, and researchers, the researchers identified a pattern that is present in all three areas. The study author believes that it can also apply to designers.
The pattern goes like this: Artists experiment with countless formats, styles, and ideas for months, sometimes years, before resetting one of these experiments. According to the study, it will be the hot line.
Take the abstract artist Jackson Pollock, most famous for his “drip paintings”, most of which were produced during his “drip period” from 1947 to 1950. What did he do just before? Daughter in drawing, prints and surrealistic paintings of people, animals and nature.
Now take film director Peter Jackson. Extends over three years (from 2001 to 2003), his Lord of the Rings trilogy can be understood as his hot streak. Just before that, however, Jackson worked on a wide range of film genres, including biography and horror comedy.
Common to the two men is that their hot streak was triggered by what the study refers to as exploration, followed by exploitation. “Before a hot streak, you are unusually exploratory, so when a hot streak begins, you are unusually more likely to focus on that one area,” said Dashun Wang, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who led the study.
To understand the underlying dynamics of people’s careers, Wang and his team needed a lot of data. For film directors, they turned to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which contains datasets on 79,000 movies by nearly 4,500 directors. For researchers, they analyzed the career histories of over 20,000 researchers from Web of Science and Google Scholar. And for artists, they collected over 800,000 images of visual art from museum and gallery collections covering career stories for over 2,000 artists, such as Pollock and Vincent van Gogh. They then used AI and image recognition to extract these images, identify different art styles, and track their development over the course of the artists’ careers.
The pattern they discovered can be understood as a kind of magic formula, where the order of the ingredients – exploration and then exploitation – is crucial. By exploring, Wang means trying new things, experimenting with different painting styles or film genres. And by exploitation, he means a moment of intense focus in which Pollock and Jackson did little more than hone their craft and develop their expertise.
In a previous study published in 2018, Wang and his colleagues found that hot streaks usually last four to five years. “Most people only have one hot streak,” he says. And while the common belief was that hot streaks occur in the middle of your career, he says it can happen at any time in your life — as long as you follow this exact pattern.
This means two things. One you can not just keep exploring until you hit a gold mine. And two, you can not dive directly into something without first trying different things. You may well, but your chances of a hot streak would be significantly reduced. In fact, Wang says people who have only focused on one side of their craft – either solely to explore or solely exploit – have not reached a hot streak.
“What this tells me is that you can not just start your career and then specialize,” Wang says. “Analysis tells me that exploitation in the absence of good ideas is less likely to be productive. What you need is to think about exploration beforehand. “He quotes the professional tennis player Roger Federer, who played badminton, basketball and cricket before going to tennis. Interestingly, a 2015 report from the International Olympic Committee confirmed that coaches should avoid sports specialization at an early age because “diverse athletic exposure and sampling increase motor development and athletic capacity.”
The study was conducted retroactively, so how do we know when we have hit a hot streak in the present? And how do we know it’s time to stop exploring and start refining our craft? The study does not dig into this, but Wang says they used different metrics to assess the importance of people’s work. Artists were judged on how much their paintings sold for at auctions. Film directors were rated based on IMDb ratings of their films. And researchers were evaluated based on the number of papers published, as well as how many times they were cited.
Wang admits that these measures are not perfect. He says there are other ways you can quantify the success of works of art (textbooks mention, museum exhibits), but the auction price is “most consistent.” Is a painting only “good” if it sells? Is a designed product only a success if it wins an award?
Wang says the study focuses on artists, film directors, and researchers because the data was widely available; but since the 2018 study, other researchers have documented the hot streak phenomenon on domains from music to online media presence to startups.
For now, Wang believes this study may be useful for two types of people: those who create and those who facilitate creation. In the scientific world, these may be funding agencies, but each field has its own movers and shakers. “For every creative industry, there are makers and decision makers who have the leverage to help increase the odds of success for these professionals,” Wang says. “I hope this gives some thought to how to create an environment to facilitate this exceptionally successful period for an individual.”