After trying and failing to lead a conventional life, Jake Heilbrunn decided to follow his intuition by backpacking and volunteering through Central America. This trip changed the course of his life.
Here’s his story:
As my high school graduation approached, I secretly dreamed of taking a year off before college to travel the world. Instead, I bowed to societal pressure, pushed my dream aside, and enrolled in university.
After developing a stress induced chronic skin condition and developing severe anxiety, I soon realized that the college life I was living was based on the expectations of others. I wasn’t living a life true to myself.
From a conventional life to living the dream
I made it to my second semester of college but was miserable with an anxiety I simply couldn’t place. Around this time, I went to hear an entrepreneur speak, and his words changed my life. He said, “The biggest risk we take is not taking any risk at all.” That was all I needed to make the decision to leave school and pursue my dream of travel.
After coming home from college, I started in on figuring out where I could go that was within my budget. I had saved up just under $4,000 which I needed to cover everything: flights, travel insurance, transportation, food, incidentals, a backpack, plus living on the road for 4 months.
Luckily, I found an opportunity on Workaway that would allow me to live with a local family and volunteers, and I could teach English and soccer. I reached out to the host, he responded the next day, and that night I booked a one-way flight to Guatemala scheduled to leave in a month!
Diving into the experience
Just days after arriving in Guatemala, I set out on a six-day, seventy-five-mile trek through the jungle to explore the ancient Mayan civilization of El Mirador. This trip was my first big adventure, and I had never even been camping before. The 100-degree weather and intense humidity coupled with the strenuous daily hikes tested the limits of what I thought I was capable of.
I distinctly remember climbing atop La Danta and looking out across vast amounts of jungle expanding as far as the eye could see in all directions. It was humbling to realize how big the world is and how small I really was. Oddly enough, this new perspective gave me the confidence to continue pursuing my dreams and passions. The vastness of the jungle reminded me that if I was really so small, I had nothing to lose.
That night, the twelve of us volunteers cooked up a campfire dinner. There was no service or WiFi in the jungle, so everyone sat around and talked, face to face. Nobody was distracted by their phones or technology. There was a powerful energy among us as we shared this intense, jungle experience devoid of distractions.
The power of perspective
Hiking seventy miles through the hot jungle wasn’t great on my sensitive skin. By the fourth day of the trek, I had a stinging, burning heat rash that spread all over my thighs and legs. I started to get upset about my skin problems, which I could never seem to escape – at college or in the jungle.
One of our guides noticed my discomfort as we sat for a break. He tied the mules to a tree and disappeared off into the brush. He returned shortly carrying a bunch of greenish-purple leaves which he proceeded to rip up, grind between his hands, and then add a few drops of water to. A brownish liquid seeped out as he squeezed the “plantas medicinales” mush over my entire rash.
And then a miraculous thing happened.
My grumpy, self-pitying mood vanished instantaneously. I realized that regardless of my skin problems, I had a choice: I could enjoy this incredible journey despite my skin rash, or I could drown in my own misery.
This moment helped me realize the power of the human mind—my response and perspective toward the situation was more important than the situation itself.
Sharing the passion
My experience has infused me with a passion for empowering others to live a life of purpose through listening to their inner voice, heeding their intuition, and taking action. I have already started doing talks at high schools, colleges, and other groups in San Diego, and I’m excited to extend my reach to California and beyond.