Your Box of Knowledge

By Michael Schilf · July 27, 2010

“As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to love it more and more.”– Jules Renard

Imagine drawing a simple square on a chalkboard. That square represents the sum of what you know and what you hope to know – your Box of Knowledge. Each question you have, answered or unanswered, occupies a space in that box. Questions you're seeking answers to occupy negative space, and answered questions occupy solid space. Obviously, some people know more, some less, and therefore, each individual's box is a different size. The real key, however, is not in its size, but in its state: "Is it expanding, shrinking, nearly empty, or completely full?"

Your Box of Knowledge can be a lot of things, but it should never be completely full. A box that is full, with all questions answered, is sealed, closed off and that's a dangerous thing. Because if it's full, you feel like you know everything about everything; you consider yourself right – ALL THE TIME.

Clearly, it's impossible to come close to scratching the surface of universal knowledge; we are not all knowing gods. But knowing and feeling are very different things. We can absolutely feel infallible if we refuse to ask new questions. A closed-minded person fills their box to the brim with only answers, allowing no space for new questions, and this equates to a full and very small box – a box where we stop learning, we stop thinking.

And thinking is the key. Every decision we make should grow from informed thinking and never through blind adherence. And the only way to get informed is by asking questions – lots of them.

Here's how it works:

You do no work, ask no questions, refuse to have an independent thought – that's easy, and your box of knowledge is completely full, and the feeling of knowing everything is wonderful (prejudicial people feel great about what they know, but their box is terrifyingly small).

On the flip side, however, you go back to that chalkboard and start asking some questions. Literally draw ten question marks around that box. Now it's logical to assume that if you have ten questions, you're going to find some answers.

Let's say you find three. Immediately, your box expands – a bigger box to hold more knowledge. However, you still have seven unanswered questions. And since you have more questions, it's impossible for your box to be full.

But here's the frustrating part. If you're really doing your job – thinking, asking questions, and informing yourself – those three answers you discovered will lead you to ten more questions each. Now you have 37 questions you're struggling to find answers for. Sure, you have a bigger box, with more knowledge, but it isn't even half full. And this feeling of not knowing is never comfortable. It's the invaluable reward of learning and applying that knowledge, however, that moves us forward.

The trick is in the feeling:

If you feel like you know less and less every single day, then you're doing it right. You're asking the hard questions, and every nugget of new knowledge should lead you to where you must dig for more. And that's what you want – lots of nuggets.

And your Box of Knowledge – constantly filling with new nuggets – is a great way to think about writing. Writing IS thinking. And whether you're creating charactersdeveloping story, or finding ways to connect with your audience, it's impossible to accomplish anything of worth without asking questions.

Character: What's his relationship with his father? What was it like growing up where he did? What are his political/cultural/religious beliefs? What are his hobbies? How does he dress? Does he have a sense of humor?

Story: What is the protagonist's objective: want/need? What is the predicament? Why should we care? Who are the allies/enemies? What do they want? What are the obstacles? What are the outcomes: failure, ramifications, solutions, or resolutions?

Audience: How do you involve your audience? Make them hope/fear? How do you incorporate planting and payoff? Preparation and Aftermath? Mystery and Suspense? How do you allow the audience to add it up? To reach conclusions?

So do the work. Use our Character Questionnaire and Story Questionnaire to get started. Find your answers and expand your Box of Knowledge.