There is this incredible little human being who lives in my house. She is creative and interesting, but also snarky and sarcastic. Her third grade teacher is what I might call a true hippie. I’m fairly certain he was actually at Woodstock. He plays several instruments, including the guitar, and his class spends all of their days creating and singing and dancing…with a little bit of snark.
For her, he is the perfect teacher and the school did a phenomenal job pairing them.
I often wonder what she is going to do with her life. For the longest time (I mean, ages two through seven), she wanted to be a penguin—and she’d get mad at anyone who told her she couldn’t be a penguin because “My mom and dad say I can be anything I want if I work hard, practice, and never give up!”
Which is true. We do tell her that, but I always mutter “within reason” under my breath because, you know, she can’t actually be a penguin no matter how hard she works or practices.
She, of course, will be an incredible steward of our earth and of her community—and I can’t wait to see what she does with her life. But watching her grow and watching her incredible creative spirit often has me studying what other creative individuals have done in their lives.
Are Hot Streaks Reserved for the Famous?
Steve Jobs is probably one of the best examples I can think of. Someone who was incredibly creative and had an ability to think about the future in a way that most of us would never achieve in our entire lifetimes.
There are, of course, artists and songwriters and musicians and authors and athletes and creators who are the same. Albert Einstein. Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen. Dwayne Johnson (hubba, hubba!) and Lily James.
All of these incredibly talented and creative humans have had hot streaks during their careers. Patrick Mahomes is certainly having a hot streak right now.
But what about the rest of us? Can we have hot streaks in our careers without being famous?
Working Harder and Smarter May Not Be the Answer
Are there periods in your life where you feel like you are unstoppable and nothing can stop you? I have a colleague who is like that. We all joke that if we need something done, no matter what the timeframe, give it to her and it’ll be done, done well, and done without complaint. Of course, I also worry about burning her out, but right now, she is unstoppable.
Then there are times that you feel like you’re floundering and that, no matter what you do, it’s never enough. I had a job that was like that. Every, single day for nearly three years, it didn’t matter what I did, it was always wrong. Finally, my boyfriend at the time (who then turned into my husband—poor soul) said, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? There is something to be said for having a job where people appreciate you.”
Oh. I had never considered that. I just thought I had to work harder and smarter and not complain about the sexual harassment I received every time I was with a client (including the time we were traveling on business and he came to my hotel room in the middle of the night and banged on the door until I called security to escort him away). I had no idea I could do something about it.
Ah. So young and naive.
Today, that poor man would be eviscerated before he got off the elevator on the floor of my room. But I had to go through that very long, seemingly never-ending point in my career to get to the point that I had the confidence to stand up for myself.
After I got out of that toxic environment, things picked up for me and I regained my confidence.
How a Mere Mortal Can Have a Hot Streak
I’ll bet you’ve had similar experiences. Ones where you felt like you couldn’t miss and then years where nothing you did was right.
There is an economist who calls these times in our lives—or special bursts of creativity—”hot streaks.”
The term is typically used for sports. Patrick Mahomes is having an especially incredible hot streak right now So are the Bengals who haven’t gone to the Super Bowl since 1988.
Of course, the Bengals are now on the hotter streak of the two, but they sure made for some great football watching.
But us mere mortals can also have hot streaks, as has been researched by researchers at Northwestern, the University of Miami, Penn State, and Central European University, in Budapest.
They found that nearly every artist, film director, and scientist has had a least one hot streak in their career—a cluster of highly successful work. They also found that just about everybody has a period in their life when they produce at their best, even if they aren’t some sort of artistic genius.
So how do we have a hot streak, or two…or 100? I
The Code to Have a Hot Streak…or 10
You may remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In it, he describes how you cannot become proficient or consider yourself an expert until you’ve spent 10,000 hours honing your craft. Perhaps the hot streak is a numbers game and you can only have one (or multiples) when you produce the most work. Spend 10,000 hours to become an expert, which will create a hot streak and then move on to the next thing.
It turns out that may not have to be the case at all. The researchers have found that hot streaks are less about becoming an expert and more about experimentation and exploration. This period of testing and trying new things is followed by a period of intense creative focus.
They found that this precise sequence—experimentation and exploration, followed by extreme focus—was the single best predictor of a hot streak.
You can’t experiment and explore forever. And you can’t focus on one thing without experimenting. One without the other does not work.
It’s Akin to Growing Your Own Food
It’s sort of akin to growing your own food. You plant seeds and then you wait and wait and wait. Almost seemingly overnight, you have food and herbs coming out of the ground. But if a friend had visited the day before, all they’d have seen is barren ground and wondered if you really knew what you were doing.
It’s the same thing with creative hot streaks. You may work with people right now who seem listless and unfocused. On the flip side, you may know people who seem to be highly focused and can’t do anything wrong.
You assume that both sets of those people will always be that way.
But if the people who are seemingly listless and unfocused are actually experimenting, their hot streak will hit soon. And if the highly focused people don’t begin to experiment again, their hot streak will soon be over.
We’re Not Great at Experimentation
We talked a couple of weeks ago about why you should make an effort to unlearn your behaviors. Not only does it improve your emotional intelligence, it allows you to open your mind to experimentation so you can have a hot streak.
In general, Americans tend to be very good at focused work—at exploiting what they learned in college and early in their careers. But we’re not very good at experimentation and exploration.
One of my passions is cooking—it helps me unwind at the end of the day and I love to put food on the table for my family and friends that creates almost involuntary grunts of joy as they eat. Even when I feel like a recipe is close to perfect, I continue to tinker until it’s perfect and Mr. D says, “OK, this recipe has to stay as is.” And then I write FINAL across the top of the recipe in my notebook.
Sometimes it takes years to be able to write FINAL across the top of that page—and there are more pages without that moniker than with. But the point is that experimentation and exploration works.
You Can Have Multiple Hot Streaks
As you think about how this might be applied to your job—or your hobbies—consider the times that you’ll explore and experiment so that you can create opportunities for hot streaks. And, if you consider this type of approach, it’s a real possibility you’ll have multiple hot streaks throughout your career.
I, for one, am here for that.
If you want to talk about how to experiment and explore without, you know, losing your job or your identity? Join us in the amazing and free Spin Sucks Community.