The White House's announcement that Malia Obama would be taking a gap year after high school graduation before heading off to Harvard has sparked debate across the country as to the benefits and drawbacks of the seemingly controversial practice. There are valid points made on both sides, to be sure. But when viewed from the lens of a different hue, what is a controversial trend for 18 year-olds could also be a beneficial, albeit unconventional, option for the rest of us.
Taking a gap year is, simply put, taking time out to follow pursuits in an effort to grow and evolve as an individual before approaching the next milestone in life. Too often we find ourselves on a path forged by societal pressures - graduate from high school, go to college, get a great job, get married, have kids. We go through the motions, receiving positive reinforcement from family, friends, colleagues and strangers alike with each and every milestone we hit. For some of us, the path feels like a long stretch of Oklahoma highway; straight, paved smooth - easy to hop in the car and gun it to 120mph the whole way. For many, it's more like extreme mountain biking - traversing dips and peaks, pedaling under the hot sun across rough terrain and maneuvering around obstacles big and small to get to your destination in one piece.
Regardless of the terrain, often we move so quickly along these paths or we're so focused on getting past the bumps and dips unscathed that we don't really take in anything else. We barely savor the journey, let alone glance at our personal growth as we go along. But what if we decided to pull over, walk around a bit, take in the view around us, and look hard at the person within us? What would we learn about ourselves? What would we discover about how the world works and what our genuine place is within it?
This is what a gap year should be. And contrary to popular belief, you don't actually have to be a high school graduate to take one. I didn't take mine until I was 25, eight years after my high school graduation, four years after graduation from a top university, and after four years of blind ambition and drive in a prestigious career that didn't make me happy. I didn't come into my own, realize who I truly was, and discover who I was meant to be until after I walked away. I knew I'd crash into the next milestone in a burning heap of metal, so I didn't pull over insomuch as I opened the door and tumbled out of the speeding car. But it was worth every bruise and every scratch. Here's why gap years are beneficial, for everyone.
1. A gap year helps you focus on your own needs and desires from life.
What brings you joy, what makes you vibrant? Sometimes we're so caught up in the daily grind of attending to the demands of our families, friendships, workplaces and relationships that we forget what our needs are. Eventually you find yourself drained of energy, feeling useless on all fronts. And in a sense, you are. You can't fill anyone's glass with an empty pitcher, after all. When you pull over to the side of the road for a bit and escape the daily routine, you can better identify what you need or want from your journey by freeing yourself from the distracting societal monologue of what you should want.
2. It provides you with the time and space to follow your bliss and find the path that's right for you.
Let's say you've pulled over to the side of the road. You're standing, stretching your legs, taking in the fresh air. Maybe you spot something glinting in the distance that you're curious enough to check out. You're in no rush; why not? Maybe it turns out to be a rare diamond bracelet that brings you financial abundance. Maybe you find a map to a road-side attraction that you know you're gonna love, 5 miles west. Maybe you run into a fellow traveler who quickly becomes the most important person in your life and the two of you take a new path together. Who knows? Symbolism aside, the possibilities are endless. If you pull over and bother to explore, that is. That's the point. Completely different possibilities and new, amazing opportunities pop up around you all the time - all you have to do is get off the path for a while and go check it out with an open mind.
3. It enables you to develop any lacking life skills.
I was careening along a path that could set me up with prestige, leadership, wealth, and influence for life. But that momentum wasn't sustainable because I wasn't prepared yet. The truth is that I didn't develop most of the life skills I'd need for that sort of path until my gap year. I didn't learn patience until I moved to a second world country and opened a bar. I didn't learn empathy until I lived in a country where immense poverty and substantial wealth co-existed in the same tiny town. I didn't begin to become self-aware until I volunteered with non-profits and coordinated events to raise millions for charities. I didn't learn the value of a dollar until I had to start keeping a personal budget. I didn't develop authenticity until I shed my old skin and developed one I found far more interesting and comfortable. The deliberate exploration you embark upon during your gap time helps you focus on the things you'll need to take those next steps in life and excel, whatever form those next steps might take.
4. A gap year yanks you out of your comfort zone and gives you the courage to pursue new passions, add value to communities in need, and reach new heights.
I made myself uncomfortable by design. I left a high-paying, prestigious job that many college grads would kill for and fell in love with volunteer fundraising and community leadership instead. My experiences gave rise to new skills, new passions, and opened up a myriad of doors that led to becoming a CEO in the investment industry. Later, I moved to a country whose language I neither spoke nor understood, whose culture was completely foreign to me, to embark on a business venture in an industry in which I was not an expert. And I'm still here. I'd never have dreamed I'd be bold enough to take on such challenges had I not taken that gap year. Now I know I can tackle anything.
Despite a number of bleary-eyed, 3 a.m. nights at the office during my investment banking days, I'd never worked as hard as I did during my gap period. Much of the work is exploratory. It's introspective. It's scary. It's tough. It demands courage to look deep within, a desire to pay keen attention to the world around you, and a willingness to buck convention, drop what you're doing, and follow your bliss.
So hop off the bike. Pull the car over. Open the door and jump out while it's still moving, if you must. If you already love your career, that's great. You can always come back to it. Or work remotely part-time while you travel the world and pursue your passions. Married? Have kids? Wherever you are in your life's path, find a way.
You'll be glad you did.
We don't know what you do for a living, but we do know you likely need a break. And, nearly halfway through the year, we're challenging you (yes -- busy, overworked, financially stretched you) to #TakeABreak.
During the month of June, we'll help you nail down how many vacation days you have at your disposal, figure out where to go, and plan a trip you can actually afford. For 30 days of travel tips, cheap flight hacks, vacation ideas and wanderlust galore, sign up for our Take A Break action plan here!