Career years: ‘Hot streak’ study sheds light on peak creative performance

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There is usually one relatively short and distinct period in a creative professional’s life when they do their most important work.

For example, the Annus mirabilis or “extraordinary year” papers by Albert Einstein were all published in 1905 and changed human understanding of the universe forever. The majority of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, including Starry Night, were created in the last two years of his life. And Alfred Hitchcock directed Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds in rapid succession.

But how much do we understand about such precious punctuated periods of creative fecundity? While scientists say there is, of course, still much to learn, a new study by researchers at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology has resulted in some fascinating and surprising discoveries about these so-called “hot streaks.”

“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,” says the paper’s first author Lu Liu in a university release.

By analyzing huge data sets on the careers of nearly 30,000 scientists, artists, and movie directors, the researchers found this and several poignant patterns. These patterns, they say, weren’t visible when just looking at when the most important works occurred relative to a career. (This seems random.) But when they looked at when these important works occurred relative to each other, more consistent “hot streak” patterns emerged.

“Given the myriad factors that can affect career impacts, and the obvious diversity of careers we studied, the level of universality and accuracy demonstrated by the simple hot-streak model is rather unexpected,” the research team says.

Among the many findings, the study authors discovered these hot streaks are most likely to occur only once and aren’t a result of an increase or decrease in overall productivity. For many, this goes against the idea that times of high productivity are the most valuable for creative professionals.

Indeed, researchers write that “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…”

To unearth such patterns, the group had to be creative themselves in developing a methodology for determining the success of subjective works. How would they measure which works were better than others?

For artists, the researchers settled on using “hammer prices” which capture what an individual artwork sold for at auction.

“Among all measures, hammer prices are the most commonly used to quantify artistic success, perhaps because they reflect the values of artworks judged by art professionals and art markets, serving as a proxy for the impact of artworks,” they write.

Their data set for artists included those with a minimum of 15 works and 10 years of career length. With the auction records they had access to, this left them with a group of 3,480 artists, with careers dating back to as far as 1460.

Out of these artists, 64% were found to experience just one “hot streak” that lasted an average of 5.7 years.

To measure scientists’ success, the team decided to use the number of times an individual research paper was cited by other scholars. Along with several other methods to weed out bad data, the researchers chose scientists with at least 15 papers and 20 years of career length, resulting in 20,040 profiles for analyses.

Out of these scientists, 68% were found to experience but one hot streak lasting an average of 3.7 years.

Finally, in building the data set of movie directors to analyze, the researchers decided on simply using IMDB ratings, which resulted in 513,306 movie records and profiles of 20,592 directors. For these directors, the hot streak period was most precious, with 80% experiencing only one period of heightened success for an average of 5.2 years.

Explaining the motivation behind the research, the team noted these hot streaks aren’t just important to individuals experiencing them, but society as a whole. By better understanding the innovative process, Lui says we may be better able to discover and help individuals entering one of these important times. While some similar studies have been done before in areas like athletics, gambling, and finance, this new paper marks an innovative expansion of such analysis.

To broaden the impact of the findings, the team says they next hope to use their methodology to study the phenomenon in other careers.

“We know that these domains have different natures,” Liu says. “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.”

The paper Hot streaks in artistic, cultural, and scientific careers was published in the journal Nature. The work was supported by Northwestern University’s Data Science Initiative, the Central European University Intellectual Themes Initiative “Just Data”, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).