Reading and writing #change #culture #ISIS #languages


What do you on a Friday night? Well, in my case… I am watching an old funny American movie (“The Russians are Coming”).

Reason? This morning I was tested on my Russian skills- so, it is a joke 😀

Ok, yesterday evening I watched a movie in Russian that I received recently, “the newsmakers”, about a different kind of “reality show” (of course: in Russian with English subtitles).

Yes, it is a testing week: I have clearly written on my CV that currently I do not assume to have active speaking abilities in German (I keep reading, listening to material, watching movies and documentaries with and without subtitles), as the way I learn languages is by complementing my “passive learning through examples” with… embedding myself within an environment where I need to develop active skills (like Banderas within “The 13th Knight” movie, as I wrote few times in the past).

Ok, it isn’t really true- if needed, I can; but my standards for my own skills are a little bit stricter than what others whose CV I read assume.

Nonetheless, I was checked on my German language skills- pity that the activity that was planned so that I could actually shift and live until next summer in the German side of Italy to use it every day eventually was scuttled 😦

As I said this morning: the only foreign language that I learned formally is French (8 years), otherwise any other language (English included) was basically a “jump and swim” affair.

Anyway, my Russian skills are getting marginally better (I can do my daily news selection via titles, and sometimes I can guess the translation before checking it with Google Translate- that, anyway, requires some brain working to make sense :D).

Ditto for German: now sometimes I can again read whole articles understanding not just the meaning, but word-by-word.

While I am retrieving some books in German that I had bought and read in the early 1990s (for “personal” reasons; of course, “cherchez la femme”), I use the FAZ as my news source- as, beside current news, sometimes it includes 4 or 5 pages (occasionally more) essays that I can then get through over the week-end.

Anyway, today I completed a bit of my “business update”, by getting through a short book on a Russian accounting method (read the review, in English, at: “La partita tripla russa e il suo autore: un metodo contabile del tutto dimenticato”, as well as completing reading an update book on financial controlling, budgeting, and the like (ok, boring- but that side of number crunching has been part of one of my “business lines” since the late 1980s, the other being change/project management; anything else that you see on my CV is a side-effect of both).

It is Friday, so I had expected to write something like this post- but then, I had another test: a phone call from a recruitment agency that wasn’t the traditional list of questions, and instead was focused more on “what you think about us and what we could do to do it better next time”.

As I wrote, I have been working since 1990 on change (cultural and organizational) management, and therefore I have developed a Pavlovian reflex: ask me what I think about your service, and I start dissecting and reclassifying the information I have about your service, compare it with other relevant cases, and think about the specific case, as well as potential improvements, again partitioned about those specific for the case under review, and overall for comparable cases.

I must say: I have been asked to do that since the late 1980s, when I worked each day in at least one different industry- sometimes two or three, but always on “number crunching for managers”, and both in Italy and abroad my network of colleagues sometimes used to invite me for a drink, lunch, or coffee… to get free advice on something that they were planning: I cannot resist the temptation of spending those few minutes to at least sort out and ask questions.

In the end, it is not the ideas that I share, but the questions that I ask that most of my colleagues and customers used to appreciate- I remember a successful last job interview for a financial controller position where asking the right question closed the deal (that I then scuttled when I was supposed to sign, as the conditions had been changed- in Italy, nothing is really final, until you have the money in the bank 😀 anyway, I kept working there “on demand” for… 5 years more, doing more of less what I had been supposed to do if I had signed up).

It is not difficult: find your own “niche” (or two), and keep exercising, while also keeping to use any chance to acquire more information, compare with other cases- it will become a second nature.

Since 2008 I have a policy that I wrote about also in the past: whenever I give advice for free, sooner or later I share it online, so that others can benefit from it.

So, this morning I added another post, in this case on Linkedin (as I have quite a few recruitment agents linked to my profile)–recruitment-agencies-crm-and-knowledge-management-synspec

Also if you are not within the recruitment industry, it might be useful in your activities to keep in touch with your own contacts and keep track of what you do, learn, know, or who can provide you information on specific subjects if you need (ok, in business these two domains are called CRM and knowledge management).

If you follow my (you can also subscribe- free, of course!), or my Twitter stream @robertolofaro, you know that from Monday to Friday I keep doing my language exercises and feeding my “idea engine” by reading news from few foreign newspapers (currently El Pais, Le Monde, FAZ, Kommersant- I spend around one hour each morning).

As a further exercise, in December 2013 I started sharing those news that I think could be interesting for others through a short summary in English, followed by the link, while the following morning I post on my blog a “digest” (i.e. all the links and news comments that I posted during the day).

Reading news is interesting- but it is only thanks to my book reading habits and business experiences that I can spot patterns and add “depth”, and therefore, as ISIS started few months ago to be something more “structural” (at least conceptually) than just a terrorist group, inspiring others scattered from Nigeria and Northern Africa to the Middle East to join the bandwagon, I expanded my re-reading of Middle East history (I also followed a Coursera history course on the Middle East from an Israeli university, just to cross-check how much I remembered).

Ok, I keep again reading monthly Foreign Affairs (now I added also an Asian-focused magazine on foreign affairs, thanks to my Chinese language and culture studies), but still, you need sometimes to go back to the books (incidentally: one of the elements I always liked the most within Foreign Affairs is their “pragmatic bookworm attitude”, represented by the extensive book reviews section, few dozen pages in each issue).

So, to cut a long story short, after reading over the last couple of years e.g. books on Libya and the various wars (maybe you remember that it was once an Italian colony), I decided to re-read a couple of more extensive books from my personal collection:

Dining With Terrorists, Meetings With The World’s Most Wanted Militants
Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001

Easier said than done: there too I wanted more depth- so, I scouted the library for something more recent than my own books on the subject (as some of them are, anyway, still in Brussels- and for the time being it is not feasible to go and pick them up- better, to shuttle them all in Brussels into a new location, at least as my personal library in Brussels, if not again my home).

Usually I do not announce what I haven’t yet done, but as I anyway shared the information on my profile (book lists and book reviews), here is my week-end (in this case- Saturday Sunday Monday) list of books:

Teheran 1979
Al-Qaeda. La vera storia
Sulla strada per Kandahar

The last one is a short book from an Italian general who has been involved not just with NATO, but also in most recent Italian operations abroad.

I mean the so-called humanitarian interventions: I disagree with him politically on few points, but he knows certainly more than I will ever do on the operational side of military affairs, and I too am skeptical about a continuous stream of interventions that break apart but, due to lack of political support at home (or willingness to invest political capital to build such support), never fix anything.

We made a mess in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya- next stop, Syria?

Well, at least now President Obama can take the blame for not doing it before, but can have the political excuse (if not capital) to turn Syria into a “regime change”, i.e. a smaller evil (Turkey will be satisfied, as they had said before that their land intervention or support require to include within the package also the removal of President Assad and his regime) to avoid a larger evil (the expansion by imitation and “connection via land” and encroachment of ISIS).

Incidentally (yes, again): I know that many newspapers decided to drop ISIS and start using IS (for Islamic State)- but I dislike the choice, as ISIS is a geographical definition, IS turns it into something dangerously close to a war of “others vs. Islam”, as if ISIS were to be “the” legitimate Islamic state.

It is not. It is just one of the actors, and while it might go the Israeli way (i.e. keep expanding toward something closer to what they claim to be “their” territory), there are other Islamic states that might disagree- and, anyway, IS conveys in many the idea that any Muslim is potentially an IS supporter (an old “telescopic extension” trick used often in politics).

I am reading also other books related to cultural change and cultures (since my childhood, I am used to keep switching books- sometimes, this allows to let the brain “digest” what I read from book A while I get through another bit of book B- but it happens also that I simply get through a book until I say “enough”, switch to something else, and then get back and finish the first).

Of course, one of the books is about China- specifically, what, for the time being, seems to be the best history book series on China that I read so far (4 volumes, in Italian; I am reading the first, checked the second, and look forward to reading all four of them).

Actually, I will probably buy it… when I will have settled and at last re-united my library sections split between Belgium and Italy 🙂

And this bring up the other side-effect of this last series of tests and procrastinations.

As I said this morning, and shared with a friend yesterday, I have had enough of having to wait, be tested, and have to continuously fight with ghosts- I wasted already a decade since I had the unfortunate idea of preparing to return to Italy in 2003, and I see no end in sight.

Also ignoring the financial cost since July 2008 (yes, I keep tab- just to remind me costs incurred, and “contextualize” mermaids-like attempts to entice me into settling locally and… wait :D), why should any reasonable person that saw “games” and “tests” for a decade assume that those who can afford a decade of testing cannot keep going on?

Therefore, instead of wasting time into further wasteful use of time that I would prefer to use on productive activities, it is better to focus on consolidating experience and share it (including over the last decade); I might not be interested into going the Strasbourg way, as I have been invited to do (the Italian way- indirectly), but by applying the same organizational and cultural analysis approach that generated that Linkedin post that I shared above, maybe somebody else can find useful ideas to recycle.

Meanwhile, you have to prioritize- and my priority right now is… to keep working on my German, Chinese, and my own book writing and knowledge sharing, something only possible by getting through an ordinary life where, as I did in Brussels, I can keep any nuisance outside the door (ok, at the cost of zero privacy, as my “Brussels uninvited visitors”, by telling me how my books were, or what I had in the fridge or my apartment, tried to convince to pack and leave).

If you are interested in learning Chinese, I keep posting weekly something about the Chinese culture and politics or business (language development is now on hold- would need at least an ordinary week to “restore my personal batteries”), usually discussing and summarizing books and other material, and providing links to free online material, on

Eventually, I will do something more- for the time being, on the language side I just keep listening to my recorded material from courses that you can find online; I could do some exercises with Chinese people in Turin (there is now a relatively large community of university students), but maybe in the future, while working locally and preparing to pack and leave.

So, the next step is now to do what I did in Brussels: back then, I went to the job support office and asked to “scale down” my CV, so that I could bypass filters (officially, as I knew that it was an excuse- it was a “push” after the mess of July 2008) and keep staying locally while supporting my own costs.

For nine months I worked as a multilingual tech support over the phone for a telco (yes, those you call to ask to sort out your ADSL or mobile connection): it was an experience, as I never talked so much.

Funny, if you consider that my activities in organizational change, project management, and business intelligence or management reporting and other managerial number crunching implied tons of meetings, presentations, brainstorming and analysis sessions, workshops, etc.

Moving from negotiating, structuring and selling that service for others in Italy, and being offered by another telco to work on setting up their outsourcing contracts to being a call operator meant something really simple: I know that many say that it is a stressful job, but we moved from 12mins per call to 7mins per call and continuous changes in processes, and I kept adapting.

Why? I never worked so few hours and in a job that you do not bring at home with you, and where decisions are made on-the-spot, based on routine and procedure, and, if you follow procedure, it was actually the most relaxing job I ever had (ok, until I had a month of “mobbing” that went berserk- I was once told that I knew too many languages and had too much experience and therefore there was something else, and another time that… I speak Italian like a “Carabiniere”- by some Arab and Sicilian colleagues; that you prefer to low down and do an honest job that pays your bills while you try to settle, and that you are neither conspiring to “catch” somebody, or to take over the job of somebody else seemed to be outside the scope; paranoid aren’t an Italian exclusive :D).

Still, I had a confirmation of what I always said to younger consultants: you have to listen more than you have to talk- if you do the latter, you risk entering a “knowledge tunnel” of your own volition before you actually understood the perspective of your customer (not just what s/he wants, but what s/he thinks and why, i.e. the “mental patterns” the frame whatever they say or ask).

Well, as for the current case… I will simply keep my English CV as is, and create an Italian Europass version that is focused only on… what I can do in administrative activities (as my target is short-term administrative activities to, if not finance my next activity, at least finance my costs, and enable improving my German and stabilize my Chinese while writing few more books).

Ok, now I am at 2,000 words per hour- not too bad 😀

And no, I did not re-read or proof this article: it is a Friday evening writing exercise!

As for my new “toned down” Europass CV in Italian… tomorrow, now I prefer to complete watching the movie, and finish reading the “soldati” book from the above mentioned list- much more interesting.

Anyway, I already had a look at it, considered the structure and target audience, and therefore I know that it will flow through as soon as I will start working on it- after sleeping few hours on the new CV idea this night.


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