During the past few weeks, I’ve been making the rounds to top execs at big companies across the country to see how this economic crisis is playing out on the ground. Among the consistent laments I’ve heard: Firms can’t plan and budget for the future because it’s so uncertain.
This got me thinking about the illusion we’ve been living with — that we could somehow predict the future, at least in business terms. It was, of course, always a mirage.
But not all uncertainty is to be feared. In this magazine, you’ll find a photograph of three Harvard underclassmen, looking more like middle-school kids than Ivy Leaguers: Facebook cofounders Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, and Mark Zuckerberg. I defy readers to look at that image and say they would have predicted the impact these students would have on the world. (In a similar way, we may dismiss “washed-up” business pros, without envisioning how they might reemerge. Remember when Steve Jobs was in the wilderness at NeXT?)
Two years ago, when we put Mark Zuckerberg on our cover, we had no idea Facebook’s user base would jump exponentially, from 19 million then to more than 175 million today. We can’t predict that this issue’s cover subject, 25-year-old Chris Hughes, will replicate the success he’s had with Facebook and Obama’s campaign (see “Boy Wonder“). But we are certain that creativity will emerge from unexpected places. Look at how NPR has blossomed into a dominant news organization, just as the networks and news magazines retreat (see “Finely Tuned“). Even in tragedy-torn Rwanda, we see positive impact from — surprise — Costco, Starbucks, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt (see “Rwanda Rising“).
These are dark days, no question. And unpredictable events, from natural disasters to fiscal meltdown to 9/11, can often make things look darker. But the unexpected can also be our friend, our ally, as long as we maintain hope and embrace our uncertain future. After all, we have no choice.