by Amy Hodges

No matter how much you do it, practice may never make you an expert. But it probably will make you better.

“This question is the subject of a long-running debate in psychology,” says Fred Oswald, professor and chair of psychology at Rice University. “Why do so few people who are involved in sports such as golf, musical instruments such as the violin, or careers such as law or medicine ever reach an expert level of performance?”

For a new study published in Psychological Science, Oswald and colleagues reviewed 88 previous studies (more than 11,135 total participants) published through 2014 that investigated relevant research on practice predicting performance in music, games, sports, educational, and occupational domains.

Within each domain, the researchers averaged the reported results across all relevant studies and found that “deliberate practice”—defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a specific field—explained 26 percent of the variance in performance for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education, and less than 1 percent for professions.


“Deliberate practice was a strong overall predictor of success in many performance domains, and not surprisingly, people who report practicing a lot generally tend to perform at a higher level than people who practice less,” Oswald says.

“However, perhaps the more important contribution of our study is that no matter how strongly practice predicted performance in our findings, there was always statistical room for other personal factors to predict learning a skill and performing successfully, including basic abilities.”

Significant amounts of research have already identified basic abilities as also being important to predicting performance, but some researchers tend to minimize them and consider practice as the sole determinant of performance.

“Other factors matter as well, but even so, no one says that practice will ever hurt you; but be careful if you are walking tightropes.”

Rice University, Princeton University, and Michigan State University funded the original study.

A version of this article first appeared on Futurity.

A project from my cabinet of curiosities.

Meet Fuente Fuente OpusX Belicoso.

A cigar box ukulele I made during lockdown.

For the brave: Full origin and build story.

When I first learned to play my new ukulele, my fingers hurt. They turned an angry red. They ached.

The notes sounded horrible.

In time the pain receded and music ascended.

Through a long year, suffering produces callouses in our lives.

We harden. The shell thickens to dull the onslaught.

But we have to be careful that we don’t allow that layer to get too thick.

Or we won’t feel a thing. And worse — we’ll lack compassion. 

It takes time to process and let your soul catch up with all that’s happened and changed.

Cigar Box Ukulele Finished

Distressed for Purpose

It’s the callouses that enable us to press into the pain.

Because we’ve been there. We’re willing to push in.

Because even if we can’t see it, we know deep down suffering can become glory, and glory is a beacon.

And that requires time and space to heal and recover.

When we press into the pain that has healed, we make musical notes that resonate with others who bear the same pain.


In the Dark

Sometimes, we think of callouses as a bad thing.

Ugly. Rough. Coarse.

The mechanic or carpenter with tough scaly hands. Yet what wonders they craft with their hands — which have been formed by the work they’ve practiced repeatedly.

They become so practiced they could do their craft with their eyes closed.

Sometimes before bed, I dim the lights and strum my ukulele to decompress.

At first I had to squint down at my fingers. But after a few weeks I realized I didn’t even need to look down at the strings anymore.

Our practice shapes our lives to the best form to serve others. Our work makes something, and at the same time the work shapes us. It builds muscle memory in our lives so we can build others up.

But it takes time. Reflection. Being willing to stay in the dark. Sit and learn from the pain.

To be unashamed of the scars.

And even when we can’t see, even when things are dark and uncertain, because of our practice, we will know which notes we need to play in the night — for ourselves and for others.

Cigar Box Ukulele and Guitar

Want to make your own? Here’s how I made mine.