4 out of 4 stars
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The first thing you notice in Jorge P. Newbery’s autobiography, Burn Zones: Playing Life’s Bad Hands, is that eight of his ten weaknesses are also his strengths. The other two: he likes to work 18 hours a day, and will do it himself rather than delegate. He credits his success to extraordinary effort and taking risks. That and several million dollars in real-estate investment will do it every time.
Newbery, the self-made man, sees himself as an introvert. His business is his recreation, social life, and schooling. Yet people obviously like him. From the age of seven, when he delivers papers, to his recovery from unbelievable millions in defaulted debt, this entrepreneur thrives on cooperation and team building. Parented by liberal hippies, accused by neighbors of being “Gypsies,” he takes pride in being different. He naturally champions the underdog, identifying with the mistreatment of minorities. He lives frugally and invests his earnings into bigger and bigger deals. He recognizes in his tenants people less driven, or perhaps less lucky, than himself. He manufactures opportunity for residents of his bargain properties, aligns his interests with theirs, and fosters community improvement as an insider.
However, acquiring apartment properties with high leverage is not like buying an ice cream truck at the age of eleven. The use of the value of one project as collateral for the next depends on steady revenue. Newbery’s largest complex slides into default when an unprecedented ice storm cripples his ability to collect rents. Other projects fall like dominoes and the author sees his former supporters and cheering section turn on him. The author writes simply and honestly about the shame of negative press. He vividly describes experiencing the death of idealism and the sting of persecution. I could appreciate the pain in his frank descriptions of watching the disintegration of his real-estate empire.
If you are a swimmer, recovery is the act of drawing back you arm so that you can effectively reach for the next power stroke. Jorge Newbery’s book portrays this kind of recovery. I love that he never declared bankruptcy. I liked that he did not portray business as taking monetary profit from his enterprises. Instead, he measured his profit in enthusiasm, satisfaction, pride, and self-worth. In a bicycle race, the athlete enters a burn zone when he is near exhaustion but can feel the pleasant high of working through the physical pain. According to Newbery this is how you play life’s bad hands, relax, and endure, pour on the energy until you reach the finish line.
There are parts of this book where the author made his ordeal sound a little too simple. I doubt that dealing with HUD, city officials, insurance companies and code enforcement inspectors was a piece of cake. I disliked the places where he skirts the law, like when he has his mother rent a U-Haul for him because he was not old enough to do so himself. It made me wonder if there were not some questionable grey areas in the later narrative that he conveniently left out.
Burn Zones definitely gets a 4 out of 4 points. It is easy to comprehend, nicely edited, flows well and has a consistently optimistic point of view. I recommend it for anyone who is or has been going through overwhelming difficulties. The book is truly inspirational.
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