In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson reports on research into what causes “hot streaks” in careers. (Some personal favorites, off the top of my head: Al Green 1971-1974, Robert Louis Stevenson 1884-1886, Harrison Ford 1979-1989, etc.)
“It’s a complicated idea that comes down to three words,” Thompson writes. “Explore, then exploit.”
There’s a never-ending tension in creative work between “exploring new ideas and exploiting old certainties.”
Say you’re a car manufacturer. Every year, you must decide between investing in future innovations, such as self-driving software, and finding ways to squeeze new revenue out of existing technologies and materials. Too much fanciful R&D spending, and this year’s profit plummets. Too much emphasis on tweaking existing product lines, and you get squashed by some fresh upstart in a decade.
Thompson notes that the same tension exists on the individual level: Do you spend your time exploring new possibilities or do you “shut up and play the hits,” so to speak?
Thompson’s piece notes that the “explore, then exploit” theory seems to back up the main idea of David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. David responded in his newsletter, “Exploration is Key for a ‘Hot Streak’ at Work,” and told the story of what happened when his first book, The Sports Gene, became a surprise bestseller.
I felt like the book was my sports capstone project: the exploit of my years as SI’s science writer. I wanted to go back into explore mode. Except, suddenly there was a lot of pressure not to do that, and instead to brand myself as the sports science guy and write another, similar book, and quickly. The pressure was to keep exploiting.
I found it difficult to navigate. The book had consumed me and stretched my competence. I wasn’t ready for another one. A professional advisor told me: “You’d be an idiot to let it be five years before you have another book out.”
Maybe! But choosing to be an idiot for six years, or playing the fool, led David to the “most impactful work” of his career.
Heraclitus noted that, like with guitar strings, it’s the unique tension in life that creates harmony.
I see this tension between exploring and exploiting not as something to get over or beat, but as a kind of field from which our work emerges.
If an artist is to keep working, they will never resolve this tension, nor will they want to. (See: Milton Glaser on Picasso.)
I have a few more thoughts:
1. A “hot streak” can’t be due to the will or actions of the artist alone.
When I look at the hot streaks listed by Thompson (“Albert Einstein in the early 1900s. Aretha Franklin in the 1960s. Steve Jobs in the 2000s.”) and the ones I listed above, I can point to the sceniuses that gave birth to those particular “hot streaks,” or acts of genius. (Green and Franklin did their best work at the peak of the album industry, Ford was there at the birth of the blockbuster, etc.)
In order for artistic or creative work to be “impactful” the conditions must be right. There must be an audience ready to receive the work. The creative person has very little to do with that.
Perhaps the best way to know if it’s time to explore is if the conditions don’t seem ripe. In such winter-like moments, it may be best to disappear and explore. (Read, for example, about the career of the late actor Dean Stockwell, which is a story of working and disappearing and reappearing again.)
My favorite sentence in Thompson’s piece echoes my thoughts on wintering and dormancy: “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.”
2. Does “impactful work” really equate to the best work?
I’m always a bit suspicious of the metrics involved in such studies. For this one, the hot streaks were “determined by higher-than-average art-auction prices, IMDb film ratings, or scientific-journal citations.”
I can tell you that in my own career, my most impactful or “successful” work is not my favorite work, nor the work I think is best. It is merely the work that connected the most with others. (Caveat: artists are often the worst judges of their own work.)
4. The line between exploitation and exploration can be pretty blurry.
Take Prince, for example. He had one of the hottest hot streaks of all time at the end oof the seventies and throughout the eighties. But he covered so much territory in that time, made such a diverse range of good music, can you say he was primarily in an exploitation mode? (To be fair, his commercial peak, Purple Rain, was a calculated move to become a superstar…)
5. Is a “hot streak” desirable for the artist?
That which burns hottest burns out more quickly. A hot streak is hard to live up to, though you can warm yourself by its embers for quite a long while. Which brings me to my next thought…
6. Exploration needs to be funded.
Exploitation mode pays for itself (until it doesn’t) but the exploration mode needs to be paid for up until it pays off. (If it ever does.) One of the great gifts of a major success is that it means you can go away for a while and experiment… if you have the guts to turn your back on the temptation to exploit indefinitely. (See David’s story above.)
7. There’s a micro and macro view of this.
If you zoom in, it’s possible you can do your exploiting and exploration at the same time. I think of John Waters: “I think it up in the morning and I sell it in the afternoon.”
Doing a gig based on what I know in the morning, for example, pays for my afternoon of writing and reading about what I don’t know.
Musicians tour so they can stay home to write and record. George Clooney acts in a big mainstream movie so he can direct an indie one. Etc.
8. Explore and exploit map to the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
As laid out in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the left hemisphere tends to be all about exploitation and what it already knows for certain and the right brain about exploration and what is new. Chaos ensues when the left hemisphere gets its way too much, as it also does when exploitation becomes the main mode of the wider culture.
9. The playfulness of children can help us break out of exploit mode and back into explore mode.
See: Alison Gopnik’s writing on the subject: