Great artists sometimes seem to succeed in bursts, but the haters will chalk that up to random chance. Take, for example, the rapper Drake, who has been on the Billboard Artist 100 for 27 straight weeks. Is his recent string of bangers a coincidence, a scam, or is he really in the midst of a particularly fruitful creative period? A new study in Nature has an encouraging message for artists: “hot streaks” of creative inspiration do exist. Maybe Drake is just on one.
The findings of the new study, led by associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Dashun Wang, Ph.D., show that career achievements do not happen at random, despite previous studies suggesting the contrary. In fields like science, film, and art, there appear to be patterns to creativity that have made careers flourish.
Wang admits these findings even go against his own research. In previous studies, he had established evidence for the “random impact rule.” This means that the three biggest “hits” over the course of someone’s career – he used ratings for directors, art prices for artists, and citation in papers for scientists – generally appeared at random, perhaps in the beginning or middle or end of someone’s career.
“That discovery it suggested an unpredictable view of creativity,” he tells Inverse. “It sounds like your career is a lottery. Your best bet is to keep going and hope for the best.” But as it turns out, the career of a creative is not such a crapshoot after all.
Imagine you are Drake reaching into a hat filled with cards, each labeled with a “career achievement.” You might reach in and pull out the platinum record “God’s Plan” – a win. Or, you might pull out an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation – definitively not a win. Wang’s previous paper suggested that if you pull out the chart-topping “Nice for What,” it would have no bearing on what would happen when you reached in again. Even if you were hoping to pull out another hit like “Hotline Bling,” Wang’s “random impact rule” would have suggested you would instead probably get something closer to average (read: mediocre), like Scorpion’s “Ratchet Happy Birthday.”
But for this paper, Wang reorganized his thinking. Instead of looking at the likelihood of each event occurring individually, he and his team decided to take the three biggest “hits” of someone’s career and compare the time that passed between each event. To do this, he performed a complex bit of statistical analysis on the “hits” made during the careers of 3,480 artists, 6,233 movie directors and 20,040 scientists, which produced a completely different trend.
“If you look at the first big hit alone, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s quite random. And if you look at the second and third you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s also random’,” he says. “But then we realized it’s because they’re all next to each other.”
Wang realized that the biggest hits of someone’s career really do tend to appear in succession to one another — but there are some caveats. The first big hit — the one that begins the hot streak — is completely random, but the amount of time that passes between the next two big hits is actually shorter than would be expected if those events were random.
This pattern yielded a few other important important elements of hot streaks. Notably, they they tend to last several years. For artists, hot streaks lasted 5.7 years, and for directors, they lasted 5.2 years. Scientists had a little less to celebrate: their hot streaks only lasted 3.7 years.
The paper is careful to note one important feature of hot streaks: They’re not actually changes in productivity. Instead, they’re what the team calls “an endogenous shift in creativity. “It’s not that you produce more during a hot streak,” Wang explains. “It’s just that for whatever reason, what you produce is substantially better.”
In other words, a hot streak is a beautiful, but temporary, increase in creativity that, like Drake, we may all experience at one point in our lives.