4 out of 4 stars
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When it comes to business, I’ve never known much. From the outside looking in, it seemed that entrepreneurs can have some amazing highs, but usually struggle to keep their heads above water. It also seemed that, for most, the real estate business is more risk than reward. Well, reading Burn Zones: Playing Life’s Bad Hands by Jorge P. Newbery did not change my mind. However, I came away with newfound respect for both pursuits. This is the kind of book that makes you realize you can, and probably should, work harder.
In a lot of ways, this autobiography portrays an American ideal: the self-made businessman. The author started working and striving while still in elementary school. For most of his life, he was able to use his hard work at each chosen task as a springboard to bigger and better challenges. At his peak, he had an impressive run of successes rehabilitating crumbling apartment complexes surrounded by crime. Even more impressive, he seems to have done this by engaging with the local community, instead of trying for gentrification. However, the weather, and perhaps a hostile city government, ultimately put him tens of millions of dollars in debt. Such an experience would be shattering for anyone, but he seems to have found a road to recovery, at least as the book closes.
I think I was most impressed by the author’s attitude. Although the majority of the book is recounting his successes, he does not come across as arrogant or conceited. Rather, he credits many friends and mentors, and especially his family for their help. One of his early interests was in music producing. As a teen, punk bands would end up staying the night at his parents’ house between gigs, and were treated to home cooking by his friendly and tolerant mother. Both parents were incredibly supportive, even allowing themselves to being talked into letting him drop out of high school (earning a GED), and not attend college. He also credits some of his inspiration to people thinking that he couldn’t do something. I’ve always favored positive reinforcement myself, but Mr. Newberry was able to take some negative reinforcement and use it for inspiration, instead of being dissuaded.
One thing I didn’t like about this book was his descriptions of conflict with city government. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe his version of events, but I found myself constantly wondering about the other side of the story. Perhaps I’ve just been exposed to too much negative press about inner-city landlords, but not having lived where his projects are I have no context.
The title of this book deserves a brief explanation. On top of his business acumen, the author is an accomplished professional and amateur endurance athlete. With his title he is invoking the idea of being in a burn zone, such as climbing a hill in a tight bicycle race where he can’t dare slow down. This is his analogy to pushing through some tough times. There are many different kinds of burn zones, but he took the same stick with it approach with all of them.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. The pacing and subject matter were always interesting. Mr. Newbery has had an impressive life, and he shares a variety of stories very well. From his biography, I see he does a variety of writing and speaking. I look forward to reading more of his material.
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