A great question can change the world. Questions like the one Einstein asked himself, “What would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?” In The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly writes, “Questioning is more powerful than answering.” He discusses how the technologies that generate questions will be more valued in the future than the technologies that generate answers. He comments,
“At the end of the day, a world of super smart ubiquitous answers encourage a quest for the perfect question. What makes a perfect question? Ironically, the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Kelly. So, what makes a great question? Let’s look at a list from Kelly.
Good questions are not concerned with a correct answer
For each discussion, I created metaphors to further our understanding of what makes a good question.
Metaphor: Answers are buried deep within our mind. While we might not find the right answer we are looking for, we will find better questions the deeper we dig.
Metaphor: Our mind is like a large building with a long winding corridor, where the corridor is like a series of questions within our mind. Each room along the corridor serves as a gap between our thoughts and questions. Where each room possesses either an answer or another question.
A good question cannot be answered immediately
“Over time, the cloud, the machine, or AI will learn to articulate what is known and not known. While the answer machine can expand answers infinitely, our time to form the next question is very limited.” – Kevin Kelly
Metaphor: Unknown answers are like trees planted in our mind, where ideas are the branches and questions are the seeds of growth. The better the seed, the increased likelihood of ideas branching off one another.
Metaphor: Just as trees require time for growth, so do great questions. Yet, you must first plant the seed.
A good question challenges existing answers
Metaphor: A great question is like a rock, where existing answers are like a glass window. Innovation and new answers emerge by shattering the glass window with a rock.
Metaphor: An existing answer is like religion, where a great question is challenging the existing answer. We must challenge our current view of religion in order to seek an undivided answer.
A good question is one you badly want answered after you hear it, yet previously did not care
Metaphor: A great question is like following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole, where the question is the hole itself. You had no previous awareness of the existence of the hole, yet the further you fall, the greater your desire for an answer.
Metaphor: Imagine seeing a door all your life, yet you have never opened the door because it lacked a door knob. A great question is like a door knob appearing out of thin air. By opening the door, you are made aware of an entirely new reality. You notice yet another door as you walk through it. However, it also lacks a door knob.
A good question is a probe, a what-if scenario
Metaphor: Life is like space, where we do not know exactly what is out there. Probing what-if questions are like a shuttle that carries us further into the unknown.
Metaphor: A great question is like an ocean. An ocean has a deepest part. Therefore, a question has a deepest part.
A good question is one that generates many other good questions
Metaphor: A great question is like a library full of books, where each book leads to even more great questions.
Metaphor: A great question is like the number Pi. Where Pi cannot be expressed as a common fraction (or an answer). Just as the digits of Pi can go on and on with no pattern, questions can generate a never-ending series of new questions.
A good question cannot be predicted
Metaphor: We cannot predict great questions. Just as Google cannot predict exactly what you will be doing, thinking, and feeling twenty years from now.
Metaphor: Just as we cannot predict our next thought by asking what our next thought will be – we cannot predict great questions. If we could, they would be an answer, not a question.
A good question will be the sign of an educated mind
Metaphor: A fish swimming in clear water is like the mind of a child, where the clear water is like great questions uncluttered by answers. The mind of a child is like an educated mind.
Metaphor: A fish swimming in dirty water is like the mind of an adult, where the dirty water is like previous answers preventing questions from being asked. The adult mind is like an uneducated mind – a mind with the perception that it has all the answers.
A good question reframes its own answers
Metaphor: A great question is like the birth of a child. The birth does not reveal an answer, yet it does reveal something better… more fascinating questions.
Metaphor: A great question is like the pause between musical notes.
A good question might be the last job a machine will learn to do
“A good question is what humans are for.” – Kevin Kelly
Instead of using a metaphor here, let’s discuss a book by Douglas Adams called The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. To prevent massive spoilers, I will only use an example from Adams first book in the series.
In the book, the number 42 is revealed to be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything calculated by a gigantic supercomputer named Deep Thought. The answer was generated over a period of 7.5 million years to compute and check the answer. The computer responded that the answer seemed meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. The same beings then asked Deep Thought to produce the ultimate question, for which the supercomputer said it could not. However, Deep Thought said it would help design an even more powerful computer that can.
Finally, let me leave you with one last question. This is my great question and it fascinates me.
“What would you see if you could shine a light on the gap between your thoughts?” – Dr. Jamie Schwandt
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