Career 'hot streaks': When they happen and what fuels them

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It may appear that creative "hot streaks" in a person's career are random and short-lived, but new research reveals a pattern to the productive bursts that can help encourage more of them, The Atlantic reported Nov. 1.

Career hot streaks are periods of time where work seems to be effortless and creativity blooms, helping an employee hit their stride and flourish. These periods of phenomenal productivity usually happen over a limited period of time and can occur across industries. 

Dashun Wang, PhD, an economist from Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University, told The Atlantic that 90 percent of people have at least one hot streak during their career. Dr. Wang contributed to research three years ago that studied 20,000 artists, scientists and filmmakers and their career trajectories. They found that almost all of them had clusters of largely successful work or career hot streaks as measured by auction prices, film ratings and publications. 

How and why these hot streaks occur was Dr. Wang's next topic of inquiry. In a paper published in Nature in September, Dr. Wang and colleagues looked into the effects of exploration and exploitation on the onset of hot streaks, also looking at artists, scientists and filmmakers. 

Exploration refers to a period of time in which the professional is hyper-curious and engages in experimentation, exploring multiple career trajectories beyond their prior competencies. Exploitation, on the other hand, refers to when people zero in on a specific focal area and develop their skills and knowledge of that area. 

They found that both exploration and exploitation in career trajectories contribute to hot streaks. When either one occurs by itself, hot streaks are less likely to happen. Only when trial and error are followed by periods of intense focus and specification does the likelihood of a hot streak occurring increase. 

"Our data shows that people ought to explore a bunch of things at work, deliberate about the best fit for their skills, and then exploit what they've learned," Dr. Wang told The Atlantic.

Their results suggest that balancing experimentation and implementation sequentially may help produce long-lasting contributions. 

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