Have you ever been on a hot streak at work? You're not imagining it, and you're not alone. Researchers have discovered that career hot streaks do indeed happen, and looking at them reveals a few universal patterns.
For the study "Hot streaks in artistic, cultural and scientific careers," published by Nature in July, a team of researchers examined the work of almost 30,000 scientists, artists and film directors to find streaks, or a "specific period during which an individual's performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance." High-impact work was determined by looking at output such as a scientist's most-cited papers, auction prices for artwork and IMDB.com movie ratings.
The good news is most careers seem to have hot streaks.
"Around 90 percent of professionals in those industries have at least one hot hand, and some of them have two or even three," Lu Liu, a doctoral student at Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology and a member of the study's research team, said, according to Penn State News.
Statistically, a hot streak works like this: "As you progress along in your career, all of a sudden you reach a certain point that you're elevated to another level; it's as if you're not yourself anymore," associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern and an author of the study told the Nature podcast. "Then you start to publish work that follows a fundamentally different distribution than what we saw or did otherwise. It lasts for about a short period of time and then you fall back to where you were."
Those hot streak periods, the study found, last an average of four to five years.
Additionally, when a hot streak occurs appears to be random. "Different from the perception 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," Liu said, according to Penn State News.
Interestingly enough, the study also found that people were not more productive during a hot streak.
"Individuals show no detectable change in productivity during hot streaks, despite the fact that their outputs during the period are significantly better than typical, suggesting an endogenous [internal] shift in individual creativity when a hot streak occurs," the study states.
Indeed, the universal nature of hot streaks across fields suggests that hot streaks happen because of something within people, according to the Nature podcast, and not because of an area of work.
The study did find some things about hot streaks that are unique within a career however; for example, while the study found that while roughly 30 percent of artists and scientists have two hot streaks, only 11 percent of directors do.
Liu notes to Penn State News examples of famous works that came in a sequence, including work done by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson; Vincent Van Gogh, whose most prominent paintings were done late in his career; and Albert Einstein, whose four published papers in 1905 — including the one that delineates E = mc2 — were significant in the foundation of modern physics.