Most of us think of "hot streaks" as a sports phenomenon. Some quarterback, baseball player, or tennis champ goes through a period of superhuman-seeming ability where game after game, match after match, they just can't lose. 

But look closely at the careers of just about any high achiever and you'll see hot streaks aren't limited to sports. Whether you look at painters, authors, or Nobel laureates, most have a period of exceptional creative production. Einstein had his "Annus Mirabilis," Van Gogh painted his best known works over a two-year period, and it's doubtful Peter Jackson will ever top his Lord of the Rings run. 

Your average professional or entrepreneur is less famous, but most of our careers follow a similar pattern in which our best work clusters tightly together in time. So how do you bring on one of these hot streaks? 

3 words to trigger a creative explosion

Answering that question has been the multi-year quest of Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang, and he recently reported a breakthrough. In the journal Nature Communications, Wang and his collaborators outlined their efforts to use AI to analyze the professional output of more than 2,000 artists, 4,000 film directors, and 20,000 scientists using public data sources like IMDB and Google Scholar. The goal was to identify so-called hot streaks and to look at when and how they occurred in the span of people's careers. 

Was it that a particular age triggers a creative flourishing? Or maybe that hot streaks are a numbers game and simply correlated with greater output overall? Perhaps these exceptionally productive periods have something to do with whom people collaborate with at particular times? 

But the answer to all these questions was negative. Instead, Wang uncovered a simple three-word formula for tapping into your greatest creative potential: "Explore, then exploit."

As almost anyone who has ever tried to come up with a new idea can tell you, the creative process proceeds in two distinct phases. First, you bumble around searching for ideas and inspiration, experimenting with half-baked ideas and exploring blind alleys. This is the "exploration" part of creativity, and while it's not wildly productive in terms of outward-facing accomplishment, it's essential for the creative process. 

Then, once you hit on a good idea, you need to sit down and execute on it. This is the perspiration part of the old saying, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." In Wang's formulation, it's the "exploit" portion of the process. 

After crunching through his massive data set, Wang noticed that hot streaks in all disciplines followed a consistent pattern. They came when a person first went through a period of relatively unfocused experimentation, but then crucially settled down to the hard task of exploiting whatever insights they had gained during their wanderings. 

"Neither exploration nor exploitation alone in isolation is associated with a hot streak. It's the sequence of them together," Wang said.  

The secret is in the sequence.

That has serious implications both for how to seek out your own personal hot streak and how to manage others to maximize their chances of entering a period of hyper achievement. Periods of exploration can look aimless or fruitless. But open-ended searching is an essential precursor to great work. Even if it feels frustrating or like a waste of time, you need to make space for exploration if you eventually want to reach your highest creative potential. 

On the flip side, you can't be a searcher forever. Insight is useless without execution, so knowing when you've landed on the right idea and need to really put your nose to the grindstone is equally essential. 

"Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea. By contrast, exploitation is typically viewed as a conservative strategy. If you exploit the same type of work over and over for a long period of time, it might stifle creativity. But, interestingly, exploration followed by exploitation appears to show consistent associations with the onset of hot streaks," Wang says. 

So if you're hunting for hot streaks, keep that in mind. When you're not sure where to focus your energies, you need to give yourself (or your team) the space to explore. But once you've hit on an idea, excellence is all about hard work. The secret is in the sequence, according to the latest science.