A new scientific study tried to crack the secret of creative hot streaks

Quantifying creativity is difficult, but that hasn't stopped people from trying. In a new paper published in Nature Communications titled "Understanding the onset of hot streaks across artistic, cultural, and scientific careers," a group of researchers compiled datasets of career outputs for 2,128 visual artists; 4,337 film directors; and 20,040 scientists, using deep learning to find patterns in the timing and success of each of their creative "hot streaks." They looked at the individuals' career trajectories as well as legacies (via IMDB ratings, paper citations, art auction prices, etc) in order to figure out when they were on fire, and why.

Here's what they learned:

We find that across all three domains, individuals tend to explore diverse styles or topics before their hot streak, but become notably more focused after the hot streak begins. Crucially, hot streaks appear to be associated with neither exploration nor exploitation behavior in isolation, but a particular sequence of exploration followed by exploitation, where the transition from exploration to exploitation closely traces the onset of a hot streak. Overall, these results may have implications for identifying and nurturing talents across a wide range of creative domains.

This tracks anecdotally with something I was recently thinking about. John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats recently announced a new novel, which comes on the heels of a remarkably prolific pandemic period that saw the release of three new Mountain Goats albums. I forget where I saw Darnielle remark on this, but he essentially said that the band had already been scheduled to record 2 albums back-to-back in early March 2020. They did Getting Into Knives over one week in Memphis, then drove to Muscle Shoals to cut Dark In Here the following week. During that time of deep artistic immersion, Darnielle had also been reading Pierre Chuvin's book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. By the time he got home from Alabama, and the initial COVID lockdown period began, he was already riding high on that creative momentum — so he cranked out another album, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, which was written and recorded over the course of just 10 days.

In the language of this paper, this was a "a particular sequence of exploration" that was swiftly followed by "exploitation behavior." Or, put another way: creativity can snowball, if you let it. I've always found that momentum — the immersion of deep exploration followed immediately by exploitation —to be crucial in my own work. But I've been hesitant to recommend that binge-and-purge method for everyone, assuming it was a slightly-unstable ADHD thing. Perhaps there's something to it after all (if you have the space or can make the space in your life).

Understanding the onset of hot streaks across artistic, cultural, and scientific careers [Lu Liu, Nima Dehmamy, Jillian Chown, C. Lee Giles & Dashun Wang / Nature Communications]

Image: Public Domain via PixaBay