Jon Brooks 13 min read

How I Hacked “The Hero’s Journey” and Transcended Ordinary Life

Psychology & Happiness Random + Awesome hero's journey

the hero's journey jon brooks
the hero’s journey jon brooks
The author of this post and HighExistence co-creator Jon Brooks, creates articles and podcasts about the best ideas in ancient Stoicism at The Stoic Handbook. Join his newsletter here.

I have an extraordinary life.

In the last 12 months, I’ve caught fifteen planes. I lived for extended periods in Thailand, Amsterdam, and Prague; and took mini-vactions in Slovakia, Singapore, Berlin, England, and Malaysia.

I have an amazing Czech girlfriend and really amazing friends.

I’ve written articles that have been featured by Russell Brand, Jordan Peterson, Steven Pressfield, Jason Silva, and Mimi Ikonn.

And I’ve played a key role in creating a life-changing product that’s being used by almost 2,000 people worldwide.

I can work anywhere in the world, whenever I feel like, and I really love what I do.

I wake up each day feeling grateful.

Why am I telling you this?

To brag?

To sound cool?

Absolutely not.

I tell you this to make what I say next that much more relevant…

2.5 years ago my life totally sucked.

Picture a  24-year-old college graduate with no job, braces, no girlfriend, no opportunities, few friends, no clear plan for the future, situated in the countryside of Wales, United Kingdom.

That was me.

My home village, actually, looks a little bit like The Shire from The Hobbit, but a little less magical.

the shire illustration
Illustration of The Shire from The Hobbit

troedyrhiw jon brooks
My hometown in South Wales.

My comparison of The Shire with my hometown is not coincidental.

The Hobbit is a mythological story complete with an archetypal hero’s journey, and The Shire is the perfect starting point for the journey—quiet, orderly, and ordinary.

The hero’s journey can be defined as “the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.”

The great Joseph Campbell was an expert on mythology. He laid out the basic elements of the hero’s journey as follows:

Joseph campbell hero's journey

The hero’s journey is a meta-story.

Throughout our evolution we have told stories about humans we find admirable, and by looking at the commonalities among these stories we extracted a template—the “hero’s journey”—that great stories tend to adhere to.

Stories are very useful tools—they can teach us things about what to seek and what to avoid and if they’re told well they can speak to us much more deeply than mere factual truth.

Since I was fourteen years old, my favorite film has been The Matrix.

I used to watch it on repeat, read the script, play the video games, and watched every documentary on it I could find.

Something in that film spoke to me in extremely deep ways.

I later learned that Neo’s character arc in The Matrix is one of the best examples of the hero’s journey in cinematic history.

I will break down each part and relate it back to my own journey, but first here’s an overview:

the matrix hero's journey jon brooks highexistence

While The Matrix is a great example of the archetypal hero’s journey, most high-grossing Hollywood blockbusters also abide by the same structure: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, etc.

There is something in us that really responds to these kinds of films. We pay money to see them. They show us the way out of the ordinary world; they teach in profound emotional ways how to reach our potential the right way.

But the hero’s journey did not originate in fiction.

It was reverse engineered from life itself.

If you look at the biography of someone who did heroic things you will typically be able to overlay the hero template. Steve Jobs, is a great example of someone dying (getting fired from Apple), being reborn (starting new companies), changing his approach (Pixar), getting resurrected (returning to Apple), and bringing the Elixir (iPhone) back.

But you don’t have to be Steve Jobs or Neo to enter the path of the hero.

Nobody is a hero when they begin their hero’s journey. That’s the whole point.

At the beginning of this article I told you that my life has taken a radical transformation over the last 2.5 years. Looking back, I see clearly that the template I’ve followed to achieve this change is that of the hero’s journey.

The Matrix movie, in particular, opened up my mind with it’s powerful metaphors to the possibilities that existed outside of my ordinary world.

How I Escaped The Matrix And Became Co-Owner of HighExistence

“[T]o be truly free, truly free, you cannot change your cage. You have to change yourself. When I used to look out at this world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace. I can’t tell you how to get there, but I know if you can free your mind, you’ll find the way.”

— Neo, The Matrix: Original Shooting Script

My Ordinary World

At the start of The Matrix, Neo’s life is pretty ordinary.

He is a cog in the system. He works a basic office job, has few friends, no girlfriend, and gets picked on by his office superior.

Neo ordinary world hero's journey
Neo at his office desk

Beneath the surface, however, as we journey into his apartment, we see that he has a little more going on.

neo's room the matrix
Neo at his home desk

Neo spends his nights as a hacker, searching for answers about an ambiguous thing called “The Matrix.”

To the outside world, I didn’t have much going on, but, like Neo, behind the scenes I did.

My apparent shortcomings were not just bad luck or laziness—they were self-inflicted.

They were my sacrifices.

There are many ways to think about sacrifice. I like Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s version:

The future is actually the place where there is threat. It’s always gonna be there, so what do you do? You make sacrifices in the present so that the future is better… It’s amazing. You can bargain with reality. You can forstall gratification now, and it will pay off in a place in time that doesn’t even exist yet.

I made the decision to spend a few years abstaining from the typical pleasures in life to work on myself—learning, feeding my curiosity, thinking, and exploring.

Most people around me were confused by my choices.

“Why isn’t he interested in parties or money?”

“Why doesn’t he get a decent job like everyone else his age?”

“Why does he spend his time reading and thinking about obscure things all day?

“Where is it leading?”

The truth was, I didn’t know exactly where it was leading.

But that’s the whole point.

To leave the ordinary world you must have faith that something exists beyond it.

Whether that be The Matrix, Heaven, or Nirvana, the process is the same.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

— Matthew 7:7, The Holy Bible

At times, I felt like I was climbing a high mountain in the dark. I could tell which way was up but had no clear route to the top.

In the summer of 2013, I had double jaw surgery to correct an underbite. It was quite an ordeal. Facial reconstruction, extreme fatigue, and a liquid diet. A week after this surgery, barely able to even walk up the stairs, I had the strong urge to create a blog.

I had a hundred reasons to let this idea slide, but I didn’t listen to them.

Instead I listened to the inner call. This is often the internal whisper that comes before the outer call.

One of the books I was reading at the time of my jaw surgery was A Survival Guide for Life by Bear Grylls. In the book, he had a section called “Get Out of Your Comfort Pit.” He thought “comfort zone” sounded too comfortable, so he changed the wording to “comfort pit” instead since pits are places you want to get out of fast.

I decided to call my blog to signify the beginning of my ascent.

The image that flashed into my head for the logo, I later realized, mirrored the human pod scene in The Matrix, where Neo’s mind is freed.


For the next year or so, I wrote articles about things I found compelling, for no other reason than to express myself. My goal was to map my consciousness online in blog form.

Then it happened.

The Call to Adventure

In The Matrix, Neo wakes one evening to a mysterious message on his computer.

wake up neo

On 3rd November, 2014, I had my wakeup message:

Hi Jon, I just stumbled upon your Superhuman Benefits of Meditation article and I absolute love it. I was left wondering if you'd be interested in having the post up at my website with backlinks and all of course :) Looking forward to hear your thoughts. Thanks, Martijn

I had written an article on meditation that went down pretty well, and I received this email the next day.

Martijn was a Dutch ex-poker professional, philosophy graduate, psychonaut, and the co-founder of a well-respected philosophy blog called HighExistence.

In The Matrix, after Neo receives his wake up call, he is then told to “Follow the white rabbit…”

follow the white rabbit gif

Similarly to Neo, I was a little bit apprehensive about the message. I didn’t know Martijn and this was a relatively new experience for me, but I agreed.

Later, as it happens, I learned that the original founder of HighExistence, Jordan Lejuwaan, has a white rabbit tattooed on his shoulder.

Jordan Lejuwaan white rabbit tattoo
The founder of HighExistence, Jordan Lejuwaan

I exchanged emails with Martijn for a few months and wrote a couple of articles for HighExistence.

After Neo follows the white rabbit (inner call), he receives a phone call (outer call) one day in work from a man called Morpheus. Neo receives a set of instructions to escape his office building but ultimately refuses to follow through because he is afraid. He refuses the call.

I was afraid too. Fear is a major challenge on the hero’s journey, and sometimes it will win.

But the hero learns to lean into his or her fear over and over again. The hero’s journey is a quest into the unknown, after all.

Meeting the Mentor and Crossing the Threshold

One night, under a bridge, Trinity picks up Neo and takes him to meet Morpheus in “real life.”  When they meet, Morpheus offers Neo a radical choice in the famous “pill scene.”

the matrix pill scene
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

— Morpheus, The Matrix

This is the final stage of the call. Neo now needs to make a decision and show commitment to the cause. He has to take a leap of faith. He must choose between the ordinary and unknown—certainty or potential.

Four months after receiving my first message from Martijn, I got this:

Martijn schirp message to Jon Brooks

Martijn offered me a choice. I could take the red pill and start working a low paid position at HighExistence with the potential of getting more at a later date. Or I could take the blue pill and keep living within the confines of a pre-destined life plan.

I took the red pill, and crossed the threshold. I was now an employee of HighExistence.

A year or so later, when I was having dinner with Martijn in Amsterdam, I expressed my gratitude and happiness that he had found me and messaged me against staggering odds. Had one cursor move been different, he would never have seen my article.

He began to smile.

“Well,” he said, “thank you for finding me.”

Tests, Allies, Enemies and a Change of Approach

This is the meat of the story in the archetypal hero’s journey. This is where a lot of the drama happens.

When Jordan Bates and I joined the HighExistence team we were given a big test. If we were able to make HighExistence even better within 6 months, we would become co-owners of the company. If we failed to do this, we would not.

We worked very hard and passed the test.

I was dissatisfied with life back home in the ordinary world. I knew I was not meeting my potential, and to become the hero I knew I was capable of being, I would have to leave The Shire.

I was very afraid to leave home, and procrastinated on this for months. But eventually, I booked a flight to go to Thailand alone for six weeks.

My entire approach to life changed when I landed in Chiang Mai.

You can read about my Thailand adventures here.

After Thailand, I moved to Amsterdam to finally meet the HighExistence team in real life.

Martijn and I in Amsterdam

Here I met some lifelong friends, encountered many difficult tests, and even a few enemies.

I went rock climbing a few times with Martijn, and he helped me break through some of my mental hindrances which held me back. This experience reminded me a lot of the “Dojo scene” from The Matrix.


After climbing was over, I said to Martijn, “You remind me of a white, Dutch Morpheus.” He really appreciated this compliment.

Ordeal, Death & Rebirth

At the end of my stay in Amsterdam, I met a girl. Just like Martijn, she had read one of my articles and sent me a message. She could have been anywhere in the world, but it just so happened that she was living in The Hague, a forty-minute train ride away from me.

Following this synchronicity, we decided to meet up. And we had the most incredible adventure wandering through the beautiful streets of Amsterdam till the early hours.

Almedina was originally from Prague, and was moving back home in a couple of months. After spending some more time with her, I decided to move to Prague to explore a relationship together.

However, just before I was due to go to Prague, my father was diagnosed with cancer. This came after a string of sudden deaths around me. I was okay at the time, and luckily he made a full recovery via quick surgery.

But a few months later, as I was living in Prague, thoughts of death consumed my mind.

I became very anxious and afraid of dying, or having someone around me getting killed. This is quite common after a serious illness in one’s family. In my mind I died a million deaths during those months. It was very unpleasant to say the least.

Read my article about death here.

I knew this was the time that I would have to die, at least a part of myself. And something else had to be reborn.

I started using the challenge course I designed in Amsterdam and Jordan Peterson’s Self Authoring program to figure out what to do. I knew that I would have to go into my fears of injury and illness.

I opened up my to-do app and created a category called “Hero’s Journey.” Then I listed all of my long term goals. One of those goals was “Get a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”

A few weeks later, I went to my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. I was afraid—afraid of confrontation and injury. But I was more afraid of living a life of fear.

Jiu-Jitsu can be extremely uncomfortable. Having someone’s weight crushing down on you when you’re exhausted, having someone grab your arm or neck in an attempt to force you to tap out, is intense. It changes you. It teaches you things you can’t learn anywhere else.

When Neo is reborn in The Matrix he comes back stronger, a better fighter. He is now able to take on the agents, the demons that chased him with true ferocity.

Learning how to fight with Jiu-Jitsu has been a key component of my ongoing rebirth.

Taken after a sparring session
Taken after a sparring session

The Future

I am only halfway through my current journey, and I don’t know what the future holds.

Perhaps there is no hero’s journey in my story at all. Perhaps I am using confirmation and selection bias to force my story into a pre-existing template.

That’s possible. That’s not really my concern.

What I care about is the utility of the hero’s journey.

I believe it’s a powerful guide.

I believe it can help you get more out of an otherwise ordinary existence.

I believe you can refer to it when you’re stuck as a map for where to go.

How to Access Your Own Hero’s Journey

Heroes are typically thought of as “saviors.” But according to the hero’s journey this comes at the end of the journey. Most of the hero’s journey is about gaining self-mastery and overcoming obstacles.

I can’t tell you what you should do exactly or how you ought to follow your own journey. But what I can do is tell you some of the mindsets and characteristics that have been of great use to me. I will distill them into  the following list:

  1. Don’t cheat at games of any kind
  2. Don’t tell lies
  3. Make sacrifices to build potential in the future
  4. Lean into your fears, always
  5. Keep searching for worlds outside of the ordinary
  6. Value learning over money
  7. Learn to enjoy giving more than taking
  8. Trust your instincts
  9. Read about things that unsettle you
  10. Grab opportunities as hard as you can

I would love to hear your thoughts about my story, and I would also love to hear about your own journey.

The author of this post and HighExistence co-creator Jon Brooks, creates articles and podcasts about the best ideas in ancient Stoicism at The Stoic Handbook. Join his newsletter here.
Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is a Stoicism teacher and, crucially, practitioner. His Stoic meditations have accumulated thousands of listens, and he has created his own Stoic training program for modern-day Stoics.

Dive Down The Rabbit Hole

Sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter and never miss out on new releases.

No spam. Ever.

Related Posts