Real talk on Gap Years — pt. 1
With COVID just around the corner and most universities officially announcing the expected absence of in-person classes, the infamous option of taking a Gap Year starts to seem viable — especially over Zoom University…
So should you take one and how to go about it?
You can do so much. You can learn all those things you’ve always wanted to learn. You can be anything. It will be great fun. Right? Right…?
Well, maybe. That’s what we hear all the time in any case. The answer, however, is not so straightforward…
As someone how’s been through his first and into a second one, I feel competent to answer those questions.
You have needs
One thing that must be understood, and this is the most important thing, is that the institution of school/university is very good at designing a life that “works”. It provides you a form of schedule which incorporates vital elements for psychological well-being — daily routine, sport, social contact, purpose, competition, reward… And trust me, those are very important for sustained psychological well-being. They give you a direction and an identity. They give you a reason to get out of bed on a terrible morning — hopefully with excitement, too. No one can live happily without a life frame including those elements…
But perhaps you’re not convinced.
In your Gap Year, perhaps you imagine you’ll be playing the guitar you’ve always wanted to learn to play for days in a row, even if no formal structure expects it of you. Perhaps you imagine it’d be fun, too.
Perhaps you imagine yourself restlessly hammering away on that side project you’ve always wanted to finish, motivated as a fresh morning. Day after day. Just you and the project, without any responsibility to anyone but yourself. And it’d be fun, too.
Maybe you imagine, further, that just as efficiently as in your former school, you’ll be going over study material from Coursera and the like — purposefully acquiring more and more qualifications. Just you and the courses. No teacher, no grades — not any meaningful ones in any case. And that too, would be fun...
If that’s what you think, your expectations are going to have a major disagreement with reality. It’s just not that simple...
“How do you know?” you might object. “Maybe that’s good for me. I’m an introvert, fine doing my own thing.”
Well, I know because I’ve experienced it, but you know too — even though you don’t know that you know. It is not at all difficult to realize just how important it is to have the earlier mentioned elements in your life— daily routine, physical activity, social contact, purpose, competition, reward. COVID unwittingly presented you the perfect opportunity to experience life without them, in lockdown; no routine, no easily accessible social contacts at the work/study place, no activities on a platter for the taking... Did it feel good? Probably not…
Hey! In theory, you had all the opportunities then to spend some time with yourself... You could have finished that side project you’ve always wanted to finish. You could have learned to play the guitar... Why did you not? Why did you instead feel like you were miserably rotting away at home?
It’s simple. Well, not quite. The short answer is simple. Besides the obvious anxiety the virus brought upon everyone, poor life design was a major contributor to the psychological burden most people felt.
Did you keep a roughly similar eating and wakeup time? Or did food and sleep become conveniently accessible commodities of the gray days.
Did you make sure you include some type of physical activity in your day, normally incorporated into your well memorized commute and daily routine? And yes, plenty indoor exercises do exist.
Did you keep a sharp & consistent separation between work time and personal time, or did it all just kind of blend into the pointless vastness of the week?
Those are only a few of the things that a “life that works” provides you with — by default, without you having to worry about them. But once that “life” stops working — as was the case during lockdown — the floor starts to crumble. Everyone felt it.
And this isn’t news by any stretch of the imagination — we are human beings. We have our needs, just as your dog has its own. Your dog, for example, needs to be walked. It needs attention and movement. It needs to be socialized. Don’t do that for a few days in a row, and you’re quickly going to have one sad dog.
And it’s the same with you; Although walking in the park and chasing sticks may not exactly be what you need, particular elements are vital for your well-being.
You never realized it before, and no wonder — who thinks about what is simply granted and “works”. It is when things break that we start to question them… And you don’t want your Gap Year to break.
Thus, you need to realize that your well-being has needs. You must address them if you want a good and productive gap year! But perhaps if you’re not yet convinced, go through the first month of your gap year with no plan, frame, schedule or otherwise and see how you feel. Maybe then we can talk…
Assuming we’ve established the basic human necessities as desirable, lets see if you’re the person for the job…
So should you take one?
Do you trust yourself, genuinely?
Suppose the school teacher would not mark you absent for the morning class. Suppose you’re in bed. You hear your alarm ring. Ding, ding, ding… You lethargically open your eyes and reach for the phone. There’re two buttons and we both know which those are. Do you trust yourself? You know that it’s good for you to go to that class, you know it’s good for your future... On the other hand, your bed is also good.
Not in the future.
And this is a strong argument for sleepy You, especially if nothing will happen — at least not in the foreseeable future — if You just remained asleep.
“No way.” you think. “I’d press the stop button and get my ass moving.”
Fair enough. Can you do that every morning of the working week? Can you do a month? How about a year.
If without hesitance you answered a banging “Yes” to all of those questions and you’re not from an Asian monastery, I have some bad news for you.
You don’t know yourself. At all. You are overly confident. You are not realistic.
Don’t get me wrong, such things can and have been done - they’re just very hard. Not everyone can do them and this is an understated fact. Work is no fairy tale and you don’t know where you’d be if it wasn’t for the institution of school or otherwise to discipline and direct your efforts. You also probably don’t want to find out. It’s not pretty...
But if you do wish to find out where you’d be, and maybe you should because this is a real part of life, perhaps you could think of most kids from poor neighborhoods; with overworked parents and teachers, too busy to pay them attention or provide the courtesy of discipline, where does the ultimate freedom of youth lead them more often than not? Is it a good place?
Those are thoughts which must be taken with dread seriousness. Things really do go sideways if you don’t masterfully craft your path — or have it conveniently crafted for you by school or parents.
Perhaps you should think twice before you say that it’s easy to follow a straight path without enforced direction when you’re young… And you are, indeed, young. I am too, for that matter.
Doing your work without the threat or reward of the institution and social approval is no easy task. And you have no idea just how hard it is… Why? Because you haven’t had to do it and most certainly not everyday for a year.
Facts are, this is the default state in which a Gap Year places you - there is no routine you must follow, nor is there a time you must wake up at. There are no immediate consequence to “I’ll just do it tomorrow”. There are no after-school activities served on a platter for you to take. There are no social contacts by default either; in fact, most of your friends will probably be at university or elsewhere.
What does that leave you with? As said, by default, with nothing — unless you consider the purposelessness of the gray days to be something.
But there are good news too. “by default” is not how things need be. There is true value in taking a Gap Year.
You’ll grow up. You will see what it’s like to face the reality of life independently and, on the other end, you’ll be a better version of yourself. You’ll become stronger. In between the nooks and crannies of your personality, you’ll discover your flaws —veiled until then by the all too well functioning routines handed to you by the order of the world. You’ll design a “life” and, in the process, discover your unique needs, strengths and insufficiencies. You’ll learn.
Hopefully, you’ll look back at your Gap Year later on in life. Hopefully, with nostalgic pleasure, too… This can be done. You only need to be smart about it and know what you’re getting into.
The way I see it, there are two main questions you need to ask yourself to figure out if a Gap Year is for you. You’ll have to give an honest answer. And an honest answer isn’t what you wish the answer to be or what your Ego wishes it to be. An honest answer must be derived from observation, not opinion; try to remember how you’ve acted thus far in your experience and derive the answer from there. The questions are as follows:
- Are you good at controlling your desire for impulsive pleasure?
If you answered an honest and objective Yes to 1. — objective by your own private standards — you’re good to take a Gap Year. Don’t get me wrong, the party’s far from over for you; you’ll still experience a fair bit of wondering and hardship until you figure out just exactly how to design a “life that works” for yourself, but you might just be able to pull it off. Frankly, your self-control is likely much weaker than you think, but you’ll improve on the way. It’s good that you have the belief as a solid base.
If you answered a No to 1., you must ask yourself 2.
2. Are you competent enough and willing to find a job that you like, even slightly?
If you answered a Yes to 2., you are good to take a Gap Year, but you must find a job. This is non-negotiable.
“An idle mind is a devil’s workshop” — saying older than the Biblical stories.
If you answered a No to 2., however, you’ll be better off without taking a Gap Year. If even you don’t believe in your ability to control impulses and are not willing/able to find a structure which will constrain you in that regard (like a job), chances that you’ll fall off tracks are high. Extremely high.
It’s just not worth the risk and there’s nothing shameful in that. As said, not everyone has had the fortune of being though discipline — difficult as that might be to conceptualize for some prosperous individuals.
If you fall under this category, I won’t lie to you and tell you that it’s okay and there’s nothing to worry about. There is something to worry about. There is a lot to worry about. You need to fix yourself up or life ahead won’t be so pretty, but that’s not the point of this post.
Go to university is my advice to you. Start by making small improvements to your life. Things can still go well for you.
How to take a Gap Year?
So you’ve decided that you do want to take one. Great!
There is true value in taking a Gap Year, as alluded to earlier.
The most important thing is to make a realistic plan. This is also the hardest and thus, deserves a separate post.
While I work on the next piece, I hope you enjoyed reading this one!