Jake Heller is a reporter and video producer based in New York City. His work has appeared on The Daily Beast, MSNBC.com, Poynter, Global Voices, and Intelligence Squared, among other publications. He is a proud graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


This is the autobiographical essay he wrote in his J-School application; hopefully it will give you a little idea of who he is:

I suppose that I should start at the beginning.

I was born into a loving family where my dreams were nurtured. My parents were caring and my siblings were kind, despite minor skate-throwing incidents. I grew up believing that I could accomplish anything if I simply tried and that I could – and should – change the world.

Apparently, though, idealism has a bad reputation outside of my family.

For other people, it inconveniences apathy, complicates complacency, and is associated more with naiveté than with reality. They look down upon my idealism with the condescending expectation that I should grow up, wake up, and see that the world cannot conform to intangible principles like Truth and Justice. Ideals are not real, people tell me; I should do myself a favour and stop believing in them.

Take one of my professors, for example.

In my sophomore year, my good high school friend committed suicide and I returned home for his funeral. It was the second suicide-induced funeral invitation that I had received in the past two years, and I was overwhelmed. Could life really be so hopeless? I asked for an extension on a paper that I was writing about the genocide in Darfur.

My professor replied to my request in a one line email, and in doing so taught me more about humanity than she ever did in her course on African politics. “Unfortunately,” she wrote, “extensions may only be granted upon the death of a grandparent, spouse, child, or sibling. Sincerely,” the most inhumane person that I have ever met. Surely emotions are not bound by such categorizations? And what if one of my parents had died? They too were excluded from her extension policy. Yet she chose compliance over caring, and comfortably adhered to a proscribed reality – or rule – instead of changing it on behalf of her ideals.

And her choice is not uncommon. My next-door neighbour has in fact made such insularity her life’s work. The old woman only leaves her house to garden, to shovel snow, or to scold me. 1) I should not play ball hockey in our shared driveway. 2) I should not step onto her side of the driveway. 3) I should not be Jewish. She has spat at me, thrown rocks at me, and has slandered my family. Why? Because ignorance is easier than understanding. She has forsaken her ideals in favour of simplicity and, like my professor, has chosen adherence over action.

I do not believe, however, in such narrow-mindedness. “Straight ahead of oneself,” The Little Prince has taught me, “one cannot go very far…”

Nor do I believe in defeatism. Idealism and reality are not mutually exclusive, and others’ overwhelming acquiescence to that belief drives me in my desire to effect positive change. Indeed, “the most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

Instead, I believe that aspiring to ideals unseen, to hopes unfulfilled, and to dreams unachieved is the hallmark of a life well led – even if those ideals, hopes, and dreams are not ultimately realized. The world that will come through the pursuit of those goals will unquestionably exceed a world accepted as it is today. As Adam Michnik, the Solidarity leader, writes, “pragmatism is inseparably intertwined with idealism.”

My life’s defining narrative, then, is my idealism’s continuous clash against the weight of self-proclaimed realism. And I am fortunate that others share my story.

Unfortunately, a lot of them were assassinated.

Still, today, I am surrounded by people who inspire me just as Plato’s Socrates, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King do. My parents are stalwarts of openness, honesty, and caring, and imbued me with such a sense of idealism that as a child, I once had to scold my Dad for J-walking: he’s a lawyer and should not have been breaking the law. My friends and co-workers from camp, all free to laugh at ‘real life’s’ trivial travails, have shown me that love can transcend family ties. And the countless others who I have met on my travels, who welcomed me into their lives with uncompromising trust and kindness, have taught me that every moment of my life can be a catalyst for positive change.

“My life is my message,” Ghandi said. I hope that my message will be half as rewarding.


Jake is also a graduate of McGill University, where he majored in History and minored in Political Science and Economics. He has worked as a soccer and hockey referee, as a camp counsellor, at the Clinton Global Initiative, in the British House of Commons, at The Daily Beast, and at the London-based newspaper The Independent. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.

Follow him on Twitter @HellerJake

Check out his (sadly defunct) online magazine, Bloguments

Connect with him on LinkedIn

Or email him at: jakegheller@gmail.com

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