Don’t memorize what you can look up

“Never memorize something that you can look up” is a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein. And it happens to be pretty solid advice in most cases. No value is added by being able to recite facts from memory. Value comes from being able to piece together the facts to make something new. It’s one thing to know the syntax of a command or a language function. It’s something else entirely to know how to use it to get the desired result.

I recently had a conversation with a gentleman who was applying for a volunteer gig at a non-profit. The role involved doing some work with spreadsheets, and they had him sit down and implement a few features while they watched. At one point, he looked up how to perform a particular task. They ended up not accepting him.

I don’t think we have quite caught on to the idea of looking up instead of memorizing. As Seth Godin points out, ubiquitous lookup is a very new concept. The idea of being able to rattle off easily discoverable facts is still appealing to us. In some cases, that’s still desirable. I really want EMTs to know how to perform first aid without Googling it. Pilots should know what the various switches and buttons in the cockpit do. Programmers? Meh.

Anecdotally, the tech industry is ahead of the general population in terms of avoiding memorization. I have a hunch as to why that may be. Memorization comes from repetition, and in tech repetition is something we strive to avoid. If you’re repeating the same thing over and over, you’re doing something wrong. That’s not necessarily the case in other fields.

When I think the things I have memorized, few of them are useful. I’ll probably never need to know that the McDonald’s restaurant in Georgetown, Indiana is store 12895. Or the one in Clarksville is 383. Or the one on Grantline Road is 12900. I remember IP addresses for defunct hosts that I haven’t worked on in eight-plus years. I don’t remember the argument order for Perl’s split function (it’s always the opposite of what I think it is), but that’s okay. When I need to split a string in Perl, I can look it up. It’s more important that I know when it’s appropriate to do that than to instantly recall the implementation details (and I suspect if I spent more time coding, I’d remember more syntax).

I hope the “don’t memorize” philosophy continues to take hold. For my part, I’ll never reject someone because they had to use Google. If anything, the ability to use search engines and other fact-finding tools is among the most important skill one can have.

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