Across diverse fields, people's greatest performances come too tightly bunched to be random, new research has found, but the reasons are unclear. Encouragingly for anyone who worries they may have missed their chance to make an impact on the world, these “hot streaks” can come at any time. The bad news is, most people get just one.
Scientists have long debated whether clusters of outstanding performances are just random chance, with fans seeing patterns that are not really there. Alternatively, such runs could be about opportunity – a hit film, for example, will probably be followed by funding and collaborations that make the next success easier.
However, Dr Dashun Wang of Northwestern University has produced evidence there is more to it than that – the clustering is real, and occurs when opportunity seems an unlikely explanation.
Sports statistics provide plenty of data to study the concept of hot streaks, with studies concluding it is all an illusion (with one amazing exception). Just as a coin tossed often enough will eventually produce many heads in a row, it doesn't require a hot streak to explain a successful footballer scoring in several successive games.
However, in Nature, Wang extended this research to the seemingly unrelated fields of painting, film directing, and science. For these, he found the clustering far exceeds what chance would predict.
To quantify the impact of a scientist's work is relatively difficult so Wang looked at the number of citations received in the first 10 years after publication of every paper by 20,040 scientists. Einstein famously produced three of his greatest papers in just four months (although arguably his best work was later). We can't all be Einsteins, but Wang found an individual's three highest impact works are usually published close together. He also found 90 percent of scientists have extended runs of work that outperforms their career average, but only 32 percent of these got a second such round.
These findings could reflect some distinctive feature of science – perhaps a single line of inquiry produces multiple related papers before it is done. However, in the midst of this research, he thought about the career of Alejandro González Iñárritu. “He won two Oscars back-to-back for best director. And that’s where I realized, this is not just scientists,” he told Kellogg Insight. “This story’s much much bigger.”
Wang used IMDB film ratings as a proxy for film quality, and auction records for visual art. Although these rating systems are certainly open to criticism, the paper notes other measures of film merit correlate closely with IMDB.
The stats for visual artists were almost identical to those of scientists (91 percent having at least one hot streak, with 36 percent of those getting more than one), although film directors were a little different (80 percent and 20 percent respectively). Runs lasted longer in the arts, however; 5.7 years on average for painters and 5.2 years for directors, compared to 3.7 for scientists.
Unexpectedly, in all three professions, there was no shift in the amount of work produced during a streak – quality went up but quantity was unchanged. Moreover, the timing was random – anything from Einstein's annus mirabilis at 26 to peaking shortly before retirement, confirming Wang's previous study that found scientists' top paper can come as easily late in their career as early.
The findings could have relevance for hiring practices. Such a large proportion of an individual's impact on their field comes from hot streaks that ignoring the erratic nature of their work “Leads us to systematically overestimate or underestimate the future impact of a career,” the paper warns.