The Science of the Hot Streak
For the last couple weeks, many of my NY friends have been extremely psyched about their Amazin’ Jets: a run-of-the-mill NFL team that suddenly, mysteriously started beating more talented teams, and which now stands one victory away from reaching the promised land of the Super Bowl.
It’s a great story, because we can relate. We’ve all been part of groups, in school or sports or business or music, that suddenly inhabit some magical zone of high performance — and then just as suddenly fall out of it. The deeper questions are: what causes this to happen? How can we make it happen more often?
I think part of the answer might be found in an unexpected place: a small, messy room on West 56th St. That’s where, from 1950 to 1954, a motley group of young comedy writers gathered to write the television program “Your Show of Shows.”
Each week, the writers (Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart–talk about a talent hotbed) invented an entire show from scratch. By various accounts, the pattern was always the same: Monday, hardly anything got done. Tuesday, a little bit, but not that much. By Wednesday, things started rolling — in part because cameras had to be set up. Thursday and Friday were insanely productive – which was good, because Saturday night their inventions were beamed live nationwide for 90 minutes. Every week the pattern was the same: the writers started slow, then (suddenly, miraculously) hit on a hot streak. Their work, so unpromising on Monday, became brilliantly funny by Saturday night.
I think there’s a useful connection between the Jets’ hot streak and those insanely productive days on West 56th St. — and not just because comedy and football are so similar (collaborative, complex, relying on precise timing). But rather because both are beautiful examples of how to build a deep-practice hothouse; a place that combines intensive learning with an urgent set of emotional cues. Three common elements jump out:
1) Super-high goals, from the start. On his first day, to the open-mouthed disbelief of media and fans alike, new Jets coach Rex Ryan talked about how the team would be visiting the White House after winning the Super Bowl. The West 56th St. writers set their goals even higher. As Mel Brooks said, “It wasn’t only a competition to be funnier. I had to get to the ultimate punch line. I was immensely ambitious. It was like I was screaming at the universe, like I had to make God laugh.”
2) Strong shared identity. It’s no coincidence that Coach Ryan and Sid Caesar resemble each other in personality; or that they have created teams in the images of themselves — tough, sharp, provocative, funny as hell. Because they’re not just building a team — they’re creating a story.
3) Early failure is not a verdict, but a navigation point for better work. The Jets went through a tough patch early in the season, much like the Monday-Tuesday doldrums on West 56th. The bad days weren’t the end; they turned out to be stepping stones.
Of course, that’s not to say that doing these things is any kind of guarantee. Hot streaks are mysterious because they always depend on factors beyond our control. Truth is, the Jets could easily have lost to the Chargers last week; truth is, “Your Show of Shows” was sometimes hilarious, sometimes not so much. But the deeper truth is, both caught a hot streak because they had build a structure to do so.
Side note: There’s an interesting school of thought that holds that hot streaks don’t actually exist. Several studies have found that what we see as hot streaks is really just our narrative-hungry brains superimposing a story on a random run of luck. But I’d like to point out that most of these studies involve coin flips, NBA scorers, and MLB batters — highly compartmentalized, either/or scenarios that don’t resemble the complex, emotional group interactions we find in football, comedy writing, and, I’d argue, our everyday lives.