There’s an old joke. Driving around New York City, a tourist rolls down his window and asks a passerby “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
Indeed, the path to excellence is well known among musicians. They are aware that learning to play the violin, for instance, doesn’t result from attending lectures or reading textbooks on the theory of violin-playing. They know that musical skill comes only from practice. Twenty minutes a day, an hour a day, or four hours a day — depending on their goals. Lessons do help, and theory can be taught in a classroom setting, but learning to perform comes only from performance itself. To be more precise, the acquisition of skill derives from the cycle of performance; critical feedback; and diligent, deliberate and conscientious practice.
Athletes, too, have always known the way forward. A football coach can provide wise counsel, and videotaped plays can furnish helpful analysis, but you cannot develop the actual abilities and talents without putting on your helmet and pads, going out to the field, and dirtying your uniform. Like the musicians, the jocks know that practice is necessarily a daily thing (excluding days rest and recovery, of course). Similarly, no one prepares for a marathon by running a practice marathon the day before. Rather, it takes many months of steady, intensive training.
The same principles for skill acquisition apply to every field of human endeavor. This is particularly true of academic subjects, such as math or expository writing. To learn math, you must do math. Going to lectures and seeing math done at the board does help — but not much more than listening to recordings of Isaac Stern will help the aspiring violinist. That’s where homework comes in: homework provides the opportunity to be challenged, to perform, to receive constructive feedback, and to take corrective action. It should be done on a steady (almost daily) basis, in order to maintain the level of intensive engagement necessary for the associated neurological adaptations to take root. As with the marathoner, you cannot properly prepare for a test by cramming the night before.
So the secret to success is not such a secret after all. We’ve known it all along: practice, practice, practice.