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What Shakespeare and Steph Curry Can Teach Us About Creative Hot Streaks

In 1606, while the plague was spreading across Europe, William Shakespeare got the hot hand. In a little over a year, he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Four hundred and seven years later, something just as dramatic happened in Madison Square Garden: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry scored 54 points against the New York Knicks.

Aside from being great at their jobs, those two men don’t have much in common. I’ve never heard Curry recite a soliloquy, and Shakespeare lived a few centuries too early to develop proper form on his jumper. But in his new book The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen connects the dots between sports, creativity, and a few other fields by exploring what happens when people think they’re “in the zone.”

His investigation starts with basketball on that fateful night Curry became an NBA superstar. However, Cohen also takes us to different places like Shakespeare’s writing room, the offices of Spotify, and even a sugar beet farm. Along the way, he tries to find answers to big questions about the relationship between success, randomness, creativity, and luck.

I spoke to Cohen recently about creative steaks, the importance of better data, and what we all can do to take advantage of the hot hand if it comes along.

The catalyst for this book was Stephen Curry and basketball, but how did go about finding all the other stories outside of sports?

That was really the challenge and the opportunity. I read very, very widely. I knew I wanted to find some industries where there was such a thing as the hot hand and environments where you could take advantage. But I also knew that the narrative structure of the book meant that a big chunk of the middle had to be about the times when there is no such thing as a hot hand.

I cast a very wide net and tried to read really broadly. Sometimes, that meant going to the New York Public Library and reading about Shakespeare in dusty volumes I’m pretty sure nobody has read in 10 or 15 years.

How did you balance telling these human interest stories while trying to also explain complex data?

I think they actually work in tandem because part of the way that we understand science and process complex ideas is through stories—through people and through human faces. I don’t think I am the first, by any means, to stumble upon that formula. I’ve always really liked it.

But I think part of what makes this book a little different from previous books in this genre is that some of the main characters are the academics, researchers, and the scientists themselves. I find the story of how they came to this idea and how they produced these papers to be compelling in their own right.

Obviously, the main focus here is the hot hand. But if there’s a secondary focus, to me it was data literacy and analytics. Did writing this affect the way you think about data at all?

It impressed upon me the need for better data in everything that we do. Not just more data or bigger data, but the quality of the data has to match up with the quantity. I think that is a real lesson in this saga of the hot hand, because our thinking about it over the last 35 years has changed because of the presence of better data.

Better data can tell you things you’ve never heard before, it can change the way you think, and it can challenge long-held assumptions. That is very true in any industry.

Not to be too morose, but I think we are seeing that right now with this virus. We really need better data. That’s part of why this lack of testing is so demoralizing and crushing. We are this country that relies on data and has fetishized data scientists. Yet we are operating blind essentially when it comes to the data. That’s really scary. It feels like the only way out of this is by testing, testing, testing, which means creating better data.

You spend a few pages writing about the one time you encountered the hot hand as a basketball player back in high school. What about creatively? Have you ever experienced it as a reporter?

It wasn’t so much creatively, it was sort of just when I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the story, and stories were easy to write, and people were calling me back, and words were flowing out. It happened not too long ago, and I reminded myself that I really have to work as hard as I can and try to take advantage. Because the one thing that we do know about the hot hand is that it does not last forever.

I did feel like I wasn’t just writing more, I was writing better stories. I think the quality is more important than the quantity there.

What was happening really was that more resources were becoming available. It became easier to write stories. I think that’s sort of the simplest power of the hot hand, that success begets more success.

As I was reading, I ended up splitting up different chapters in two sections. Sports streaks were on one side, and creative streaks were on the other side. Because when athletes are in the zone, they know right away. How does the fact that we can’t know as writers right away influence the way we think about the hot hand?

That’s interesting. I think it’s probably harder to recognize when you’re hot creatively because those circumstances do not always present themselves in the most obvious ways. If the plague was Shakespeare’s circumstance, as I argue in the book, there was no way in anyone’s right mind they’d think that was a secret weapon at the time. It just happened to be.

It’s fun thinking about this. Even after all these brilliant people have spent so much time studying and debating the hot hand, there’s still something of a mystery to it. That’s alluring. I think that we are attracted to the mysterious, and we are going to keep thinking about this until we sort of have a better grasp of it.

Our audience is definitely interested in creativity and trying to find ways to quantify that. As you were going through the book—specifically in chapters about people like Shakespeare and Rob Reiner—can you talk a little bit about how researchers quantified the success of creative outputs?

In the book, I write about this statistical physicist and his team who wanted to do exactly that. They wanted to put objective numbers on the subjective and try to quantify this very fuzzy idea of taste.

What they did in this paper was they looked at movie directors, artists, and scientists. For movie directors, they used IMDB ratings. For scientists, they used Google Scholar citations. For artists, they used auction prices. Now, these are not perfect metrics by any means, but they’re kind of the best that we have.

There’s no real way to keep the hot hand going once it starts, but do you have any advice for people about getting it to start in the first place?

No. In fact, that was one of the things that I was really curious about. I figured who better to answer that question than the greatest shooter in the history of the planet. I asked Steph Curry about it. What he says is that he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen or why or how or where it’s going to happen. But once it does happen, you have to embrace it.

Image by Jessica Pamp
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