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Ideas for Christmas

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I'm the first to arrive for breakfast with investor Peter Ackerman at Chamomile in Belsize Park. Ackerman, who looks uncannily like Jaws actor Roy Scheider according to the New Republic magazine, bounds into the restaurant. The 66-year-old America hedge fund manager is off a transatlantic flight, popping with electricity. It's early morning and I've just arrived from Dubai, a little less chipper truthfully. Ackerman won't slow down. After breakfast, he's on to Cambridge, the next morning back to Washington. His agenda? To peddle ideas. 

It's a funny industry. I've been a part of it for the better part of my career. Tell people you work in a think tank and most assume a) you sit around all day, feet up on the desk, lost deep in thought or b) you're a spook.

Ackerman orders fruit, two fried eggs, no toast. Bacon, crispy. I have Scottish porridge oats. We're tea drinkers. Ackerman lived in London in the early 1990s.

A born and bred New Yorker, Ackerman made his fortune on Wall Street in the 1980s working along side Michael Milken at the investment bank Drexel Burnham. Ackerman is both businessman and egg head. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, served for four years as the Chairman of Freedom House and did a stint at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He's the founding chairman of his own non-profit, the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC). Among his passions is the idea that "strong, self-mobilized, bottom-up activism," is key, as he puts it, to successful democratic transitions. His ICNC is a repository of thought on how opposition movements in authoritarian countries can most effectively organize and plan.

I mix with a range of people in the ideas world, a field which seems to be gaining in popularity (disclosure: Ackerman and I have been professional acquaintances for a number of years). The tag line for TED Talks is "ideas worth spreading." The Aspen Insitute calls its annual conference an "ideas Festival." Everyone wants to change the world these days, it seems, even Lady Gaga; "one sequin at a time," she says.

Mulling my breakfast with Peter Ackerman, and with New Year's resolutions just around the corner, here are three tips for anyone thinking about plotting a future in the ideas business.

First, read. Lots. Especially fiction. Einstein said imagination is more important than information. The latter we have in excess these days. How to spark more of the former? There's increasing evidence that engaging in activities like the thoughtful viewing of art and reading novels unlocks cognitive capability, enriches our emotional intelligence and grows our mind in critical ways. Psychologist Keith Oatley writes about how stories can help our understanding of perception, learning and thinking. braham Lincoln adored Shakespeare and loved poetry, especially the work of Robert Burns and Edgar Alan Poe. Einstein was said to have been very fond of Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamosov. Churchill was a famously voracious reader, accomplished painter and prolific writer, publishing several dozen book-length works, including a novel.

Second, don't expect eureka moments. Milton Friedman's contribution to monetary policy took years to develop. The same applies to Charles Murray's work on welfare reform. Serious policy work takes time. This counts for the creation of good ideas as well as disastrous ones. Fascism was spawned by trends in intellectual thought and debate in Europe in the late 19th century. As a fully developed concept it did not take shape until the early 1920s when Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy. 

Finally, get ready for toil. Reading, thinking and serious writing are a heavy lift. It's like competitive sports. Loads of mental gymnastics, daily practice and grinding exercise. Like music. I'm always amused by the popular misperception that composers take long walks through the woods by a lake, are struck by inspiration, and suddenly a symphony is born. Most composers actually sit at a desk from morning to night, writing and re-writing, working through their manuscripts much like mathematicians work through theorems. It took Beethoven two years to compose his ninth symphony, with material drawn from work the had been assembling over a decade. Serious public policy research is deliciously gratifying, but an excruciatingly patient process.

In Belsize, Ackerman and I spend almost two hours together over breakfast. He's still sparking as I walk him to the door, off to further appointments. I'm duly stimulated, ready to read, think and write. But first, perhaps, just a short nap. 

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