Exploring and Exploitation Can Lead to Career Hot Streaks

Have you experienced a hot streak in your career?

At Transition Solutions, we work with individuals at all stages of their careers, some just starting out and others that may have already experienced a hot streak or two.

During periods of transition, we encourage our clients to explore areas of interests and various options as they consider their next move. Career success is often from the calculated use of talents applied to areas of interest. Derek Thompson from the Atlantic recently shared research supporting hot streaks in your career don’t happen by accident summarized below.

Economist Dashun Wang from The Northwestern University coined a period of success at work as a “hot streak” and told Thompson that, “Ninety percent of people have a hot streak in their career. Most people have just one. Some people have two. It’d be nice to have more.”

Several years ago Wang and other researchers co-wrote a paper with researchers that used large data sets to trace the career outputs of more than 20,000 artists, film directors, and scientists. The researchers found that almost all of them had clusters of highly successful work, as determined by higher-than-average art-auction prices, IMDb film ratings, or scientific-journal citations.

So how do we achieve a career “hot streak”? Thompson shared that Wang spent several years trying to answer that question. His search uncovered mostly dead ends until this year. This summer, Wang and his co-authors published their first grand theory of the origin of hot streaks. It’s a complicated idea that comes down to three words: Explore, then exploit.

In Wang’s most recent analysis, he found that artists and scientists tend to experiment with diverse styles or topics before their hot streak begins. This period of exploration is followed by a period of creatively productive focus. “Our data shows that people ought to explore a bunch of things at work, deliberate about the best fit for their skills, and then exploit what they’ve learned,” Wang said. This precise sequence—exploration, followed by exploitation—was the single best predictor of the onset of a hot streak.

Wang pointed to Jackson Pollock, the artist known for splashing and dribbling paint on a canvas. When Pollock started painting, in the early 1930s, he experimented with a variety of styles, including abstract art and surrealism reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s work. Suddenly, in the mid-’40s, he honed a mystically messy “drip style,” in which he painted almost exclusively for about four years. In 1949, Life magazine made him a household name and asked if he was “the greatest living painter in the United States.” The next year, at the height of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned his drip method—and started experimenting again, until his death.

Interestingly, neither exploration nor exploitation seems to do well on its own within Wang’s research. “When exploitation occurs by itself,” Wang and his co-authors wrote, “the chance that such episodes coincide with a hot streak is significantly lower than expected, not higher, across all three domains.” Only when periods of trial and error are followed right away by periods of deliberate focus does the probability of a hot streak increase significantly.

The research suggests something fundamentally hopeful: that periods of failure can be periods of growth, but only if we understand when to shift our work from exploration to exploitation. If you look around you at this very moment, you will see people in your field who seem wayward and unfocused, and you might assume they’ll always be that way. You will also see people in your field who seem extremely focused and highly successful, and you might make the same assumption. But Wang’s paper asks us to consider the possibility that many of today’s wanderers are also tomorrow’s superstars, just a few months or years away from their own personal hot streak. Periods of exploration can be like winter farming; nothing is visibly growing, but a subterranean process is at work and will in time yield a bounty.

Thompson summarizes with the point that all success—career success, corporate thriving, national flourishing—requires that we pay close attention to the interplay between scouting new ideas and pumping established wells.

At Transition Solutions, we have been helping companies and individuals with workforce changes for thirty years. Our strong reputation for consistently delivering exceptional service at value sets us apart. If you would like more information on our services please check out our website at https://www.transitionsolutions.com/ or you can contact us directly at 888-424-0003 or email us at info@transitionsolutions.com.