Are there any non-academic fields that you can succeed in with memorization?

A recent thread asked whether or not there were any academic degrees that are primarily based on memorizing large amounts of facts or trivia rather than gaining a deep and intimate understanding of the underlying theories. The general answer seems to be that academia is fundamentally about the underlying theories and facts are only learned as a means to the end. Some fields require the memorization of a large number of facts, but one cannot generally pass solely on the strength of a good memory.

Are there any jobs, fields, endeavors, awards, certifications, etc. where one can or is expected to succeed based primarily or exclusively on memorization? For example, are there any occupational certifications or licenses I can get by taking a class or a test that is more or less entirely based on memorization rather than understanding principles? Are there companies that screen workers based on their knowledge of job related trivia (yes, you have to pull the catalog code number and filing weight of a #5335 reverse threaded screw out of your head on the spot and also indicate if the National Association of Parts classifies it as a polymonochromatic endomarchionical component or not) rather than on general education, personality, or experience? Are there fields where it is generally recommended that a person learn the fundamental principles but it is reasonably possible to succeed by just memorizing the textbook and applicable reference materials? For example, can you become a certified and/or successful (e.g. keeping a job) Medical Biller and Coder solely by memorizing the codes for medical conditions or treatments without really understanding medical classification? You don’t know what the hell schizophrenia is or how it is different from high blood pressure or syphilis but you damn well know that Schizophrenia with Antisocial Behavior is code SCZ-445-A, Schizophrenia with Sexual Obsessions is SCZ-445-B, Schizophrenia with Transcranial Depression is SCZ-445-C, and Schizophrenia - Other is SCZ-445-Z?

One thought I had would be that many game shows are based on trivia. But are there any real day-to-day jobs where you sit around the office and occasionally someone comes up to you out of breath and tells you that the company will default and lose millions on the Smith and Jones contract unless the company can match the following three French Renaissance painters with their cities of birth within the next 10 minutes and the internet is also down so we can’t Google or Wikipedia it, this is why we hired you?

I wonder if accounting (esp. tax accounting) would be an example. (Now, watch, the next poster will be a tax accountant, who’ll tell me that I’m completely full of crap. :wink: )

Memorization plays a role in all sorts of fields of endeavor, even most, but I very much doubt that there is any where that role is more than subsidiary, especially in an era when facts can be looked up with great ease and speed (if not on Google, then on some proprietary database made specifically to support the sort of work in question).

I bet you few if any tax accountants have the whole tax code memorized. A skill they do need to have, though, is knowing how and where to look up the section of the code relevant to whatever issue they may be working on.

One job in which memorisation is particularly important is taxi driver. There have been studies about the brains of London cab drivers, as they have to memorise a ridiculous amount of information to get a license. There is no deep understanding needed, though. Drivers have to know how the city streets are laid out, but issues of urban planning are largely irrelevant to their day-to-day job.

Interesting. Were there now-obsolete fields at one time that did primarily involve memorization? E.g. could you sign on as a crew member of a sailing ship in 1720 with no meaningful skills except that you had memorized the vectors of all the major trade winds and could recite the average yearly price for a dozen commodities in a hundred of the most frequently visited trading ports, but couldn’t calculate trajectories or sail settings or develop a meaningful business plan? Then, the ship’s navigator would come to you one day and tell you that his atlas got swept away in the last storm and needs your help, what’s the average windspeed velocity of the Gulf Stream near St. Croix during January, and is there an established market for cotton there that does more than a hundred British pounds worth of business a year?

Great point. Thanks!

Casino physiognomists.

Perhaps it’s not what you had in mind, but I’ve worked in places where the receptionist knew all the phones number, and the name, of every (70+) member of staff, and it they were in, or out of, office.

And now I come to think of it … I worked with two social workers who, in a week, learned the name and face of 240 yr-12 students.


I thought that actors were normally hired based on their appearance, voice, ability to affect an accent, demeanor, or attitude, and “memorizing lines” happened to be an additional skill you needed to really succeed. Do people really get hired as actors based on the fact that they have already memorized the script or based on a quiz showing memorization of prior works, or are they hired based on their ability to move the audience and present a convincing persona on stage/film/TV/wherever? Where do I go to take the Quotations from Shakespeare Battery I to qualify to join an acting troupe?

All that, no doubt. But obviously, memorizing too.

This must be true of most or all the performing arts. Simon and Garfunkle, for example, must have memorized all the lyrics, melodies, and music of their entire repertoire; likewise any other singers, opera players, ballet dancers, etc.

This is an good example of two things…how memorizing is important, and how memorizing is not quite enough.
I know a medical coder.She has a vast amount of info memorized, just like your example of Schizophrenia, and therefore can work faster than someone with less experience, who still has to look up details in the code book.So, yes, memorization makes her successful-- and able to keep her job.

But…memorization isn’t enough.
To be better-than-average (and really keep your job!)you also need to understand the subject more thoroughly. She often has to code files from patients whose diagnosis is vague and could be listed under several different categories; so she has to go back to the original sources–reading the original blood tests or biopsy results, comparing them to previous results,…and then make the final decision how to classify the disease.
I suspect that most jobs are like this.Memorization helps, and if you are lucky and don’t have too much competition, you can make a career out of it. But if you want to be really good at your career, you need a little more.

(like the receptionist mentioned above: memorizing all the phone numbers is a great advantage…But you won’t get hired just for that skill…you still need to know how to do the rest of your job.)

See also “Memory Man” Leslie Welch.

Amazingly, according to your cite, no one asked him about the 39 steps.

A few points:

(1) Obviously, the memorization is a necessary but not a sufficient condition; otherwise, I could be as successful as Simon & Garfunkel just by memorizing their stuff.

(2) I wonder how hard such memorization is. Once you’ve written a song and performed it multiple times, isn’t the “committing to memory” part fairly automatic?

(3) I’d suspect that a cover band that takes requests would have even more need for a good memory than an artist who played all their own stuff.

During college I worked in a sorting facility for a large worldwide shipping company. The grunt work involved loading and unloading packages from trucks but the prestige job (and a substantial pay increase) was achieved by memorizing all the zip codes for the US and becoming a sorter where you stood by a conveyor belt and moved boxes to different belts based on their zip code.

Good point. The purpose of my OP was not to cover opportunities where memorization is required, but opportunities where memorization = success.

Harbor pilot is similar. Chesapeake Bay pilots need to know by heart every distance, buoy and navigation mark.

Professional game show player.

Card counter. (you just need to be able to do it really fasy)

Michael Larson being the classic example.

I doubt whether there were ever any professions (well, except those stage mnemonist performers) where memorization was the only or even main skill needed, but it is certainly true that in the past, before the internet and even more before the widespread availability of printed books and cheap paper for note taking, memorization was considered a lot more important than it is now, and in ancient times, elaborate mnemonic systems were widely taught and used. See Frances Yates’ famous book, The Art of Memory. However, elaborate, general purpose mnemonic systems of the sort discussed there went into sharp decline after after the Renaissance, presumably because few people felt the need for them any more.