A “hot streak” or “hot hand” is the notion that since a person has experienced a series of successes, then he or she is more likely to have continued success. Hot streaks have been mentioned in sports, gambling or financial markets. But do they occur in individual creative careers?

In a new study, a team of researchers looked at the works of nearly 30,000 artists, film directors and scientists to see if their high-impact works were more likely to occur in hot streaks.

The research paper is published in the journal Nature.

According to researcher Lu Liu, a doctoral student in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, a universal pattern was indeed discovered.

“Around 90 percent of professionals in those industries have at least one hot hand, and some of them have two or even three,” she said.

Liu says that there are two schools of thought regarding hot streaks in individual careers. The first is the “Matthew effect,” which implies that the more famous you become, the more likely you’ll have success later — which essentially supports the existence of a hot streak. The other school of thought — the random impact rule — suggests that the success of one’s career is primarily random and is mainly driven by levels of productivity.

“Our findings provide a different point of view regarding individual careers,” said Liu. “We found a period when an individual performs better than his normal career, and that the timing of a hot streak is random.”

“Different from the perception [in innovation literature] that peak performance occurs in an individual’s 30s or 40s, our results suggest that individuals have equal chance to perform better even in their late careers.”

The researchers also wanted to know whether individuals were more productive during their hot streak periods, which last an average of four to five years. Surprisingly, they were not.

“Individuals show no detectable change in productivity during hot streaks, despite the fact that their outputs in this period are significantly better than the median, suggesting that there is an endogenous shift in individual creativity when the hot streak occurs,” wrote the team in their paper.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data they collected from a variety of sources. They looked at scientists’ most-cited papers from Web of Science and Google Scholar, auction prices for artists, and Internet Movie Database (IMDB) ratings to gauge popularity of films and their directors. Then, they reconstructed a career path for each individual based on that data.

“The question starts from looking at the random impact rule,” said Liu. “We start from that to analyze if it applies to different domains. To our surprise, we found something more interesting.”

She explained that when the researchers looked at a scientist’s highest-impact work through their most-cited papers, the timing was random, as well as the timing of the second-most cited paper. But in looking at the relative timing of these highest-impact works, the researchers found that they were in fact correlated.

“That’s how we find a hot streak period,” said Liu. “We then analyzed [this finding] in other creative domains, like artists and movie directors, to see if there are similar patterns in these careers.”

Liu said there are several cases when the most famous works of an individual came in sequence. She cited Peter Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings” film series; Vincent Van Gogh, whose most famous paintings were completed late in his career; and Albert Einstein, whose four published papers in his “miracle year” of 1905 contributed significantly to the foundation of modern physics.

“[A hot streak] doesn’t just matter to these individuals,” said Liu. “It matters to society as well.”

Liu said that the new findings can help us understand the innovative process, and have the potential to discover and cultivate individuals during a hot streak.

As the study shows that hot streaks do in fact exist in creative careers, the team hopes to apply the research methods to more domains, including musicians, inventors and entrepreneurs.

“We know that these domains have different natures,” Liu said. “For example, scientists collaborate with each other and artists work alone. If we can find the triggers and drivers behind the universal pattern, that would be much more interesting.”

Source: Penn State