on September 28, 2011
As a writer with 30 books in print, I am jealous: I do not think I could ever write a book as wonderful as this.
Of course, no one else could write it, as it is primarily an autobiography of one of the most extraordinary men I have had the honor to know in my life. But I also do not possess the skill to so artfully tell a story, that were it not true would be unbelievable, and tell it with elegance, beauty, poise, and clarity. Dan Brodsky Chenfeld tells his story with the smoothness and flow of a mountain stream.
No one alive could read this book and come to the finish as the same person. It is a book about determination, courage, and intensity that all will appreciate and benefit from. Part Two is a brief, well-thought-out self-help book that can apply to any profession, though this book is about skydiving. But you could ignore self-help if you wish and just read this amazing story.
For reasons Dan explains he was captivated by flight since childhood, but when he first jumped from a plane with a parachute at the age of 18 he had found a life's work and challenge to become the best competitive skydiver in the world. It is a hobby and profession that pays no tangible benefits other than being the best in the world at a sport few mortals ever experience.
Self-interest alert: I am a skydiver and met Dan soon after his first jump. I watched his riveting determination to be the best develop over the years; he moved to California, where he felt his chances to improve were greater.
I followed his career for years as he climbed the ladder of excellence until it all ended, I thought, in a plane crash that killed 17 of 22 skydivers aboard, including one of his and my best friends, the amazing James Layne. Dan, body broken, was in a coma for six weeks and in hospitals for many months more. No one but Dan ever considered that he may one day jump again.
Dan opens his story with a dream sequence before he even knew he was in a coma, then goes back in time to his childhood and youth - day by day, month by month , year by year - which led to his hospital room.
I judge many a book by how I would have edited it, nearly always cutting away pages of extraneous descriptions and unnecessary accounts. I found no single sentence to delete in this story as it flows form Dan's voice to his pen.
The book is written chronologically in very brief chapters, simple nuggets easy to read and retain. The profiles of the many people who influenced his life are vivid, and the constant love of all of his close-knit family never played second fiddle to his dreams. His girlfriend and then wife, Kristi, willing to live in a trailer in the desert while he chased his dreams, played an unusual role of tough love as he crossed over from total dependence to partial independence as he began to heal after the accident. Eventually even his nine-month-old daughter Chloe Layne made an impact on the eve of his ultimate achievement. These folks are pictured poetically in a colorful section where you can meet them all.
I can treat you to a synopsis of the book simply by listing some of its 40 initial chapters: Waking Up, Following Your Dreams, Growing Up, Defining Spirituality, The College Years, Going into Business, Wanting to Be the Best, Finding Work, Discovering Arizona, California Dreaming, Skydiving Plane Crashes in Perris, Losing my Halo, Moving On, Till Death Do Us Part, The Ultimate Power of the Human Spirit.
In the final 90 pages of this 326-page book Dan packages the lessons learned in his life into ideas and rules that can work for anyone who cares to go beyond mediocrity in life or in business or profession. The world is full of self-help folks whose achievements do not warrant their license to give advice. Few on this planet have earned the right to do so as Dan Brodsky Chenfeld has.
on September 6, 2011
This book is a great read. Brodsky-Chenfield writes about his life competing to win the world skydiving championship. Along the way he gets fleeced by his first business partner, almost flunks out of college as a theater major, nearly dies in a skydiving plane crash that kills his "little brother", and then not only recovers but goes on to achieve his ultimate goal. Brodsky-Chenfield writes with great humor and insight which provides emotional impact to what are already dramatic events. Competitive skydiving is an arcane endeavor that has not previously been explored in an autobiography. The closest predecessor is "Jumping Fire" by Murry A. Taylor who describes his career as a fire fighter in remote forests accessible only by parachute. Both Brodsky-Chenfield and Taylor explore the difficulty of building and sustaining relationships with women while pursuing a career that demands nearly all their time and emotion. "Above All Else" goes beyond most adventure books that describe a thrilling and dangerous career by including life lessons that are learned by Brodsky-Chenfield in the most painful ways. The author's self-deprecating humor keeps the book fun without confusing the message. "Above All Else" is an outstanding addition to this genre. It reminded me of the introspective, "On the Ridge Between Life and Death", by David Roberts, the extreme climber and mountaineer. He too lost friends while engaged in an addictive but dangerous sport. Roberts explores his motivations for risking life and limb purely for fun. Brodsky-Chenfield never questions his motives; it's a given that jumping out of airplanes is the coolest thing in the world! Instead of asking why, Brodsky-Chenfield asks how. His book is the answer to that question. In fact, the book is comprised of two parts. The first is autobiographical while the second is instructive. This book is about making choices and performing well. The two parts work together to illustrate and explain these two actions. The performance that the author uses for illustration is skydiving but he makes it clear that the same lessons hold for all high-speed, precision sports such as downhill skiing or auto racing. But what about the accountant who works alone in a room, communicating only through documents? Performance may be less important in this circumstance but making choices is critical for everyone. Without being pedantic, Brodsky-Chenfield distills his practical approach to moving through the decision-making process. He presents fear as the primary obstacle to commitment and spends considerable effort explaining how to overcome or even utilize fear. So, you get a self-help book in addition to an adventure story! I have to warn you: reading this book may cause you to start exercising or setting goals for yourself. It really is an inspiring read and I hope to see another book by this promising author. For full disclosure, I have known Brodsky-Chenfield for several years. We skydive together from time to time but I don't owe him any favors. This review is my sincere opinion of a great book.
on February 16, 2012
I wish I had the chance to have read Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld's book earlier in my life. I found it so inspirational, and so full of practical hints to actually being able to achieve my goals or make my dreams come true (I mean real hints, not only the "Believe it hard and it will happen" stuff, you know) that I often think that my life would have turned slightly different than it did.
But you know what? It's never too late! And I look forward to what's coming up next, because I feel ready now, I know what to do if ever I want my life to be as exceptional as his, if I am ready to commit myself enough to choose happiness and success ..."above all else."
Just one last thing though... Sure, it's a story about skydiving, but you don't need to be a surgeon to enjoy medical TV shows, do you? So even if you've never jumped out of an airplane, you will learn a lot, and certainly love reading Dan BC's book.
on April 5, 2013
The main biographical story in this book (70%) is followed by a smaller (30%) section on playing to win. So you get two smaller books in one package. I felt the bio section was interesting, and the winning section was somewhat useful.
The biography part was fairly routine as biographies go, telling the story of how the author grew up loving sky diving and how he devoted his life to it. The book makes it clear that skydiving was everything to him, #1 in life, above all else (including living conditions, relationships, people, and so on).
This seemingly self-centered philosophy of life (me and my sport/issue/love/job above all else) is found in many top achievers in many disciplines in life. The author makes it clear that when any life decision was involved, the first (and often only) consideration was "what would be the best for my skydiving love/habit (and later..goals)?" It reminded me of a line from an old Vince Lombardi book, where Vince said something like "Once you truly get your priorities in order (in his case, coaching football was everything), all other decisions are easy."
And so the author tells the story of his life, which for decades was focused on the goal of being a winning competitor in national and international skydiving competitions. After achieving that goal, he's still focused on competitive skydiving, but now as a leading coach.
This part of the book is generally well written. The narrative story moved along well (I think I remember one slow spot), and the sentence structures, grammar, and spelling were all fine. The content (the topics, issues, thoughts, and events from the author's life) seemed appropriate too, although somewhat routine after a while (hop in the van, drive to a new jump zone, live in the van and jump and train until the next competition, then hop in the van, and repeat).
However, I felt there were a few too many places that were really too heavy with "I this.. I that..", such as thinking that it was a valued achievement for the school teachers to have the author finally get himself together enough to pass his routine school exams. Perspectives like that do characterize the author, so I think the book does a good job of communicating the author's views in those areas.
I thought the second part on winning made the book a better book. The author is clearly trying to explain his views on chasing dreams, making teams, and winning in both life (by chasing your dreams), and in competition by winning.
First the bad news in this section--there were so many completely unsupported (and I felt unrealistic) claims in this section that I think it affected the integrity and believability of the section as a whole. Thus I found myself skipping over many of the "fluffy" (my opinion) claims and paragraphs in search of paragraphs and points that made more realistic sense. For example, instead of limiting himself to saying "X worked for me, and for 2 other teams that I know of," the author repeatedly goes beyond his direct experience and claims that "X will work for you, and for everybody, including salespeople."
A second piece of bad news in this section, at least for me, was the author's constant repetition of the phrase "trust your instincts, trust your instincts, tyi, tyi,..." This point--which he clearly thinks is important--completely escaped me, given his rational advice on documenting your best performances, analyzing everything, asking all the questions, visualizing, practicing, debriefing, planning, and so on. Clearly he does NOT believe that trusting your instincts and raw talent are good enough to win competitions, so I think he creates confusion for the reader by saying on the one hand, "trust your instincts" so many times, yet simultaneously saying on the other hand, "document, analyze, visualize, etc." At the very least I think the phrase "trust your instincts" needs a far better explanation and contrast with the ideas of relaxing, remaining calm, etc.
Now the good news in this section--there were more than a few sections that I highlighted because they made so much sense, and were sometimes fresh and original (at least to me). In particular, I think he does a good job of (1) contrasting the ideas of winning in life by chasing your dreams and by enjoying the journey of improving your own performance vs. winning a competition event, (2) building momentum one little decision at a time, (3) doing your best vs. being the best (at some moment in time at a competition).
I thought the section on teams was not that informative or useful; it certainly echoed the author's experience with skydiving teams, but I had almost zero highlights in that section. I thought the best parts of this section were the ideas of having a disciplined communication plan and a debriefing plan (disciplined processes for improvement).
I think the book would have been better if the author had provided more detail on the plane crash, because the crash was a large and pivotal part of the author's own story about overcoming obstacles (losing team members to death, breaking his body, his recovery) and continuing to live his life by chasing his dream. The author still works at Perris, so I can see why he included only one sentence to suggest the cause of the crash: "No problem. They simply called in an outside vendor to truck in fuel." But I think his omission of the full story weakens the book by leaving an important part of the story out.
According to the LA Times and the NTSB, apparently the plane was overloaded by 1600 pounds (that's 8 people too many @ 200 lbs each) on a 9900 maximum load (16% overloaded), the center of gravity of the payload (the skydivers) was positioned too far forward of the center of lift of the wings (no positioning seatbelts were being used), making the plane unstable (nose heavy), and when the right engine quit (possibly due to bad fuel with too much water in it from an offsite vendor), the pilot feathered the left propeller (possibly to reduce asymmetric thrust), causing the plane to lose thrust from its only good engine, and to ultimately crash, killing 16 people. "Pilot error," said the NTSB, who also blamed Perris Aviation (who leased the plane) for not enough pilot training on the Twin Otter plane (although the pilot had apparently been flying successfully for many years).
All in all I think this was a competent biography, with an extra section on the author's views on "Playing to win." I think the author's views must be respected because of his track record, but I found about 1/3 to 1/2 of what he said in the winning section to be unsupported/unrealistic (strong claims beyond his direct experience) or "un-actionable" (trust your instincts).
For the Kindle price, the book is an interesting story (but it omits central plane crash details) with some useful, actionable information on playing to win in life and competition, written by a world caliber skydiving coach and champion. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes biographies and adventure stories.