Across a range of creative domains, individual careers are characterized by hot streaks, which are bursts of high-impact works clustered together in close succession. Yet it remains unclear if there are any regularities underlying the beginning of hot streaks. Here, we analyze career histories of artists, film directors, and scientists, and develop deep learning and network science methods to build high-dimensional representations of their creative outputs. We find that across all three domains, individuals tend to explore diverse styles or topics before their hot streak, but become notably more focused after the hot streak begins. Crucially, hot streaks are associated with neither exploration nor exploitation behavior in isolation, but a particular sequence of exploration followed by exploitation, where the transition from exploration to exploitation closely traces the onset of a hot streak. Overall, these results may have implications for identifying and nurturing talents across a wide range of creative domains.