When you think about hot streaks, what springs to mind?
Probably a sports analogy, like Roger Federer winning 41 consecutive matches in 2006–2007. Or maybe you’re a film buff, and you point to Peter Jackson’s brilliant Lord of the Rings trifecta, released in 2001–2003.
Then there’s my personal favorite, Jackson Pollock, whose “drip” series in the late 1940s transformed the art world. I own a print of his piece Convergence, and it’s a constant reminder about the importance of connecting the dots to facilitate breakthroughs in creativity and business in general.
While a good hot streak is hard to beat, what I find more compelling is what these people were doing before their legendary bursts of success. Federer played badminton, baseball, and cricket prior to pivoting to tennis. Peter Jackson directed several eclectic and comparatively small films in different genres, including drama and comedy-horror. And Jackson Pollock dabbled in drawing, print-making, and surrealism.
So how did they get from OK to iconic? This is a great question to ask nowadays in our post-pandemic “Great Resignation” phase of reassessment. It seems to me we’re all looking for new vistas, greater purpose, and more opportunities to make a meaningful mark on the world.
Or a series of impacts, like a hot streak, would be great, amirite?
According to a new study that used deep learning and network science to investigate thousands of examples of successful individuals, from artists to scientists, there is a common pattern leading up to a hot streak.
And the good news is honing in on the trait that the world’s most creative people share is learnable. (Emphasis on learn.) Even better, you can easily avoid the pitfalls that extinguish your hot streak before it starts.
Let’s dive in.
The Shapes of Business Success
Since we’re talking about a study that surveyed information and detected patterns, I will apply that approach here to describe how I envision streak-inclined individuals and businesses.
The T-Shaped Employee
Early on in my career, friends, and colleagues used to give me shit for being a “creative generalist.” That’s how I used to refer to myself, and I was pretty proud that I had equal enthusiasm for coding, design, video, and animation. (Remember Flash? Yup, me too.) I also was a continuous student and eager practitioner of business, marketing, and communications strategy.
Even though plenty of people pushed me to specialize, I resisted. Of course, I could also go deep on a given subject, but I worried that staying focused on one thing would lead to a fixed mindset. And that’s the last thing I wanted — a growth mindset (or even a mashup of mindsets) is core to my operating system.
In 2012, I finally found a model that worked for me in the “leaked” Handbook for New Employees from the online gaming platform developer Valve: the T-Shaped employee. As they explain:
“That is, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things — the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline — the vertical leg of the T).”
For example, I’ve been obsessed with the connection between video games and reality since I was a kid. And I’ve been exploring the components, boundaries, and possibilities of creating interconnected physical, augmented, and virtual experiences long before the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world began vowing to bring the metaverse to life. (Here’s the proof: a piece I wrote in 2015 connecting playing a then-popular video game, Fallout 4, and the value of being a T-shaped employee.)
The point is that by being a generalist with a lot of different interests and outlets, you can take all of those inputs and use them to formulate a unique and specialized output. I believe I’m a more responsive and effective leader because I glean inspiration from many different places and put it into action where it matters most: serving as a force for positive change in people’s lives.
So, when I think about the future of work, it makes sense that the T-shaped people will not only survive but thrive. In our warp-speed culture, continuous upskilling is critical. It’s how you make it from the early parts of anything — a startup, a new job, a fresh project — to a viable situation. Go broad, then narrow, and back again to learn more and be ready to take on what’s next.
The U-Shaped Business
Now, let’s expand that thinking to not just individuals but organizations. One of my young employees recently shared with me that their mentor told her that in any company, there’s a U-shape with a very telling “middle.”
On one side, you have those who are new to the company (one to three years), and on the other, longstanding employees who have been there seven years or more. The traits of those in the “middle” (employees who have been there four to six years) are where you can see how consistent the behaviors and values of the company show up.
The more a company embraces a growth mindset, the more likely it is the brand will provide breakthrough products and services that help people and boost bottom-lines.
As my employee’s mentor pointed out, the newbie’s drive to learn, experiment, and grow, leads to the middle folks’ ability to shape smart and focused solutions. This mirrors the pattern the scientists discovered: hot streaks were preceded by a period (months, even years) of exploration before the person hit upon the experiment that worked best. Then there was a period of exploitation, where exploration tapered off, and the honing began — and a hot streak was born.
The word “streak,” by the way, says a lot. It’s not something that lasts forever. In my career, I can point to a few hot streaks that helped define and grow my company from a $5,000 investment to an 8-figure business. (More on that later in this article.)
The trick is to not focus too much on either exploration or exploitation. Because when things grind to a halt, then your streak is a non-starter or, worse, a goner.
Beware of the Streak Killer — Stagnation
Stagnation is, in my opinion, one of the biggest traps there are in business. And we see it all the time. One day you’re a category-defining brand (i.e., Casper), and the next minute, your C-suite is cut, and you’re back to the drawing board. (Again, Casper.)
The reasons things stagnate are myriad: perhaps what made you successful becomes the thing that holds you back. The industry changes, the market moves on, technology evolves, competition encroaches, and so on.
To that, I say yes, and — all of those things are symptoms, not the core issue.
The ultimate reason stagnation happens is fear.
Here’s a visual to understand what’s happening when things stagnate: once I took a walk around a lake, and I noticed the water wasn’t moving. There was no apparent source, like a stream or river feeding into the lake. I looked more carefully and saw algae forming, and bugs were feeding on it. What was once an inviting, refreshing body of water was becoming a clogged cesspool.
Similarly, organizational stagnation marked by a lack of vital ideas and actions will dry up from a lack of progress. And the source is all fear-based, from employees being scared of making mistakes to concerns about disrupting the thing you know (aka the status quo). Plus, judgment calls can be terrifying, especially when you’re unsure how to discern between reversible and irreversible decisions.
How do you fight the fear and, along with it, stagnation? Simple. You stop being reactive. Think about a thermometer vs. a thermostat: a thermometer simply reacts to its environment and reports the temperature. On the other hand, a thermostat takes control of the environment and dictates the atmosphere.
As leaders, we’re in charge of calibrating, adapting, and experimenting. If the heat needs to be cranked up to get a hot streak going, we can do that by first refusing to stand still. Reject analysis paralysis and insist on movement.
As William S. Burroughs once said, “When you stop growing, you start dying.”
What Kindles Your Hot Streak(s)
I think a big part of stagnation comes down to a lack of self-development. If you’re not constantly seeking out new knowledge, different ways of working, and novel stimuli, then you’re working with the same set of limitations over and over again. Different outcomes require a fresh outlook.
To break free of stagnation, be a cross-training creative. That is, study things both inside and outside of whatever category (or categories) you work in. Travel, do things with your hands and heart, expand your horizons.
And that’s just for starters. One of the best ways to hone your hot streak, in my opinion, is to dig into your Ikigai — the Japanese word for your reason for living or the thing that you get out of bed for in the morning. You find it at the cross-section of the following:
- What your mission is (how you can serve the world’s needs)
- What you’re good at (your talent/vocation)
- What you can get paid for (your profession)
When you know your Ikigai, you are clear on your reason to get up every morning and take on the day. You also have the mental framework necessary to create hot streaks by design.
As Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
Now that’s some hot advice.
The Lady Gaga Hot Streak
Lady Gaga has, of course, had plenty of career hot streaks involving music, fashion, and film. The hot streak I’m talking about, however, has to do with Digital Surgeons. In the early 2010s, we were helping design and launch several new products, so we were in a major phase of experimenting, iterating, releasing, and refining for all types of products. In other words, we were in a rich experimentation cycle.
One day, my partner Dave and I were in a car, heading back from a meeting in New York with some folks at the US Open, a client at the time. We started talking about how much money was spent on location scouting for photos and videos when lightning struck: why pay a fortune on scouts when technology can do the job?
By the time we got back to the office, our team was already working on a concept we called “Shoot Local.” It was basically a private Instagram for location scouts. Because of all of the work we’d been doing for clients, we knew precisely what technology we needed, how it would look, and so on. We then pitched the idea to different State Film Commissions on a non-existent marketing budget, and before we knew it, we had thousands of users.
Because promoting our own digital products isn’t our core focus — helping clients with theirs is — we didn’t pursue a stand-alone product. However, the technology made a lot of sense for stars who made music videos and were looking for new ways to launch videos and connect directly with fans (like a next-generation Instagram, which was still in its infancy then)… like Lady Gaga, for example. Back then, in 2011, she was at the pinnacle of her music career and on a hot streak as a top global artist. She was riding high with “Born This Way,” which to this day is an anthem for the LGBTQ community.
While Gaga’s management team loved the concept, they said the platform was too new (and she was known to melt Amazon’s S3 servers with new launches). But that innovative spirit sparked something in her team, and we were invited to work with her and Barneys in what became an award-winning interactive project called “Gaga’s Workshop.”
By cross-training and experimenting with different things, we honed our hot streak.
The moral of the story? If your organization doesn’t have a culture of experimentation and learning, and if you aren’t pushing yourself either, then you’re stagnating.
Conversely, if you’re plugged into purpose and committed to continuously upgrading your operating system by experimenting, honing, and repeating — then you’re lighting the spark.
And igniting the next hot streak.
If you’re looking to learn more about how to own your hot streak, hit me up. Drop a note in the comments, or shoot me a DM on Twitter.