Have you ever done something, set it aside for a few days, weeks, months or years, then come back to it to find you've improved? I experience this all the time. In fact, I don't practice anything ever. I haven't practiced trumpet since 2004 and honestly cannot think of anything outside of martial arts and trumpet that I have ever seriously dedicated focused repeated study to achieve. How is it then that I (or you) improve on something I don't actively work on? Interesting question and I believe I have the answers.
Mindset is likely the key ingredient to learning the skills necessary to achieve proficiency in any physical or mental activity whether it be mundane, artistic, purposeful, expressive or self-serving. Growing these skills to meet a higher proficiency requires us to see beyond our limits and believe we can achieve more. This is probably all there is to know about becoming better or even great at just about anything. You don't need a college degree, tutoring or a million hours of practice. Simply set your mind to understanding the experience before you do it.
Of course, educating yourself with other people's experiences can be beneficial, but it could also set you back considerably. I have argued most of my life on this planet that learning by doing it yourself is the most valuable method of gaining proficiency and growth in just about anything. But what if you don't know Pythagorean's theorem, which fingers to put where on the violin or how much surface area is necessary on the wings for take off in low wind conditions? Well, that's when you ask questions and learn from others' experiences. But once you have the principles down, you should be on your own to discover your interests and develop those to your limits, then see beyond those limits and do it again and again.
Let's back up a minute. What if you decided to learn something with NO help. What if you chose to rediscover mathematics on your own? Could you come up with solutions and theorems that work and progress like the greats? Or could you simply pick up the violin and eventually become great with no lessons? Or build an airplane from scratch and survive? The answer is a clear YES since that's really how all subjects came to be. Someone started asking questions and it led to their life's work. In reality, this has been the case with millions of people throughout history. We all possess the innate desire to understand our world and control some small part through physical and mental human manipulation of nature's resources. This is progress, this is life, this is humanity.
Take trumpet for instance, it is possible to learn trumpet by taking lessons, going to schools to be educated on every aspect of music and lots of practice. Yet I know many great players that literally picked it up, fell in love with creating beautiful sound and learned all on their own. Many of them were great musicians before their first lesson and some never studied music in school.
I personally went to music school and worked very hard to learn the principles of theory, pedagogy, history, performance, etc. only to experience reverse improvement over the period of six years. I truly sounded better before I entered college than when I finally dropped out in frustration the very last week of finals. I am living proof that some people learn better on their own. Receiving weekly suggestions from my teachers aimed at improving my playing was completely unnatural to my way of learning. I eventually understood a great number of concepts in theory, yet could not put any of them into practice. The classic case of knowing everything about what I myself could not do.
But when you take a look at society today, you will see that this is the norm. People understand concepts, yet the average human being is only proficient in a very few small pieces of an overall larger system of doing something that produces a result. For instance, how many people understand how a car works? Could they build one on their own from parts? Could they fabricate all of the parts from scratch. Can they even repair the car? Yet they can operate a steering wheel and two pedals to get around town. This is not proficiency, this is living on autopilot.
Now consider the previous example and imagine the following people in place of the average person. An auto mechanic could probably replace some or maybe even all of the parts regardless of he/she understands how they work simply thanks to the modular design of automobiles today. Whereas an engineer could probably understand some, most or even all of the workings of each component yet may lack the skills to change the oil. This again is not proficiency. It would require someone with knowledge in mechanical engineering in at least six disciplines AND machining/fabrication AND welding/heat treating AND injection molding AND the list goes on to build a car from scratch if you provided this person with all the little miscellaneous components like springs, o-rings, fluids, fuel, filters, glass, etc.
Now compare my example of proficiency in automobiles with that of vocalists. A vocalist need only develop his/her own voice and skill by which he/she produces sound, none of which require any tools outside of the human body (with the exception of an atmosphere and a reflective space). Yet a vocalist may explore his/her art growing a knowledge base and experience as expansive as the engineer who builds a car from scratch.
Proficiency is clearly defined by a wide range of factors that vary greatly by discipline, but the principle is the same. Understanding a subject and growing in proficiency is almost entirely dependent on your mindset. Visualize what you want to do and then do it. If that doesn't work, take note of your results and try again. You could practice doing your entire life and never improve if you do not visualize solutions that were not apparent the day before. Visualizing new ways of doing something is a way of thinking. It is the mindset I make reference to again and again. This is a human ability that allows us to move beyond our current circumstances and to exert our ideas physically into the world to achieve something new at a higher level of proficiency.
To reiterate, daily or regular practice is not necessary to achieve proficiency. Simply seeing a practical solution or way of doing something before doing it is all that is necessary. Does that mean we'll all think up something and do it perfect on the first try? Obviously the answer is probably not, but don't be surprised when you meet that one person who can do it perfect on the first try. It happens and this is the awesome potential of all people.
Oh cool, I just imagined something new...