Eric Gutschmidt has seen the sunrise from the top of a temple in Myanmar. The sun blossoming pink and dewy in the sky, nothing but lush greenery and the silhouettes of ancient temples on the horizon. He’s been to more than forty countries, and has seen more of the world in the last five years than most people experience in a lifetime.
Eric has also seen the inside of a prison cell. There he felt the weight of a system designed to crush a person. Saw bathrooms set on fire and a room of inmates brought to tears. He decided this couldn’t be his life.
A Decision to Persevere
“It boils down to, like anything in life, when times get hard, some people give up and some people persevere, so it was just a matter of taking it day by day and making the decision to persevere regardless of the negative circumstances around me.”
In a place where so much is controlled for you, and where you have so few choices, Eric adopted a unique perspective and found value where he was.
Federal prison was different than Eric expected.. There are former CEOs in there, as well as lawyers, doctors, and politicians. There are also drug traffickers and truck drivers, too, all in the same place. Some of these people served as valuable mentors for Eric, helping him discover truths that set him on a new path.
“When you embrace and accept your faults you take away their power, and from that you can move forward.”
Those words alone are significant, but consider the context. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77% of released prisoners are rearrested within five years of their release. Eric watched many in his halfway house return to prison not long after release. He knew he needed to be the exception.
The Power of Momentum
In prison, you have a lot of time to yourself, and with that time came clarity. Eric realized something very important about himself:
“Of all the crazy things I’d done in my life, some of which were quite exciting, traveling was the most fun thing I’d ever done, and so that’s what I wanted to do when I got out.”
Eric learned the value of momentum from his mentors in prison, something that would help him tremendously in achieving his goal of travel. “The only thing bigger than you and your actions is the momentum you can create.”
He realized that if he wanted to reach his goal, he needed to pick that path and keep at it. He needed focus, and repetition, and baby steps in the right direction. Before prison, he said all his energy was scattered. Had it been channeled into a single goal, he could have been moving forward the whole time.
While in prison, Eric learned that no matter what a person’s history, he could probably get a job doing asbestos remediation. That was his first job after release. He soon took a second job, working day and night while sleeping on his parents’ couch in order to save up money for his new life. When he had enough money for a down payment, he invested in his first of several rental properties. With consistent hard work and fiscal discipline, he began to create the future he wanted for himself.
When his period of parole ended–almost three years to the day after his release from prison, Eric was on a plane to Havana, Cuba. With this new chapter started, there was no going back:
“There’s been times where things shouldn’t have worked out, or should have been negative things, and the attitude you bring to things really does make a huge difference…there have been times where things really didn’t look so good and I stayed positive and kept moving forward and things worked out.”
It’s Not as Hard as People Think
“Most people’s perception is that it’s expensive to travel, it’s scary to travel, it’s difficult to travel. None of these things are true.”
A life of travel doesn’t seem sustainable for most, but for Eric, it’s the only way to live. He’s created an organization, Backpackers United, to show people how easy, inexpensive, and valuable travel can be. Members of the group share information, tips, and travel plans. Eric and members invite others to share their adventures and experience their less commercial brand of travel, going on week long trips for around $500 and staying in hostels with like minded travelers.
Rooted in Cedar Rapids
In spite of his travel, Eric’s life is also rooted in Cedar Rapids. After becoming familiar with the challenges of those seeking safety in a different country, as well as the limited resources available to help them, Eric has recently started a program to help refugees. With all the properties he owned locally and the money he was bringing in, he knew there was some way that he could help with refugees’ transition.
That idea is to allow refugees to live in his property rent free until they get a job and a car. With his connections to trade jobs, Eric can help his tenants look for employment to learn these trades and eventually work for him being paid full price. He’s working to create a sustainable model where refugees can find work, build up skills and credit, and eventually have a successful life in the US.
Eric recently purchased the property and has his first tenant moved in and starting work. “If everybody works together and everybody feeds each other, then I think that it can work out for everyone’s best interest,” he says. “It’s when people look out [only] for their own [self] interest that everything is hard for everyone.”
Embracing All of Life
So many people long for adventure. We wish for incredible things to happen to us. On some level we all want to see the world, or fall in love, or learn something meaningful. At a young age, Eric has already had so many incredible and unexpected things happen to him:
“My life’s pretty crazy, it’s incredibly random. I’m still fairly young and I’ve crammed a lot of life experience into these short years and I don’t know what it is about me that attracts this. I’m sure it’s something, it’s just too much to be a coincidence.”
I agree with Eric. It’s no coincidence that all these interesting things have happened to him in his relatively short life. They’ve happened because he’s been unafraid to embrace life.
Eric embraced every piece of his journey: his mistakes, his momentum, even his responsibilities. His life has contained no shortage of challenges, but this willingness to go with it, to receive roadblocks with positivity and drive, has brought him to the point he’s at today.
Story by Aren Buresh. Aren is a CR native, college student, and Flow Media summer intern. Photos provided by Eric Gutschmidt. Contributions made by Courtney Ball.