Summary: If you’re about to step away from the beaten path and embark on a gap year (or years), get ready for the adventure of a lifetime, and keep these seven considerations in mind.
A generation ago in our country, the years between age 18 and 24 were very clearly mapped out for anyone seeking a conventional middle-class transition from youth into adulthood. At 18, you were expected to graduate from high school in the spring and start college in the fall. And at 22, you were expected to graduate college and step into your first “real job” within a few weeks, or months at most.
If you didn’t follow this rigid path to the letter, then heaven help you. You were doomed. You were “wasting time,” “falling behind,” and were likely to end up in ruin, eating beans out of a can in your van by the river. You may have heard a few comments like these from guidance counselors, recruiters, and mentors:
“Whoa…it’s your junior year already and you don’t have an internship lined up for the summer? This is deeply concerning.”
“Hmmm….I notice on your resume that you graduated a whole three months before you started working. Can you explain what you were doing during that time?”
“I’m worried that graduation is only six months away and you don’t have a clear plan for the future. You need a PLAN.”
Enter the Gap Year
The recent recession may have complicated your job-search, but it did leave one positive legacy behind: It put some overdue cracks in this rigid (and silly) burden of expectation placed on young people. Following the traditional timeline above is one option at this point, but it’s only one of many. And if you don’t have the requisite interest, financial resources, or eagerness to please, then this path just isn’t for you. And it doesn’t have to be. If you’re looking for an alternative channel into adulthood, take a gap year. Leave the criticism behind for a while and do something else. Anything else. Keep these things in mind before you step away from the beaten path:
1. Adulthood isn’t something you have to apply for. You don’t have to pass a qualifying exam. Like the loss of your baby teeth, it just happens. No matter what you’re doing during the next ten years of your life, you’ll be gaining experience, and that experience will be as valuable as anyone else’s.
2. Gap year or no gap year, try to cultivate respect for money. No matter where you go in this world, or what shape your personal values take, money is serious and important. So is financial independence, no matter how you attain it.
3. No matter what the adults around you will tell you, travel is easier now than it will be in the future. If you have a chance to go overseas, go now. Don’t assume this will be more comfortable, more affordable, or a more valuable experience if you put it off until your retirement.
4. The same rule applies to low paying, rough, dirty, menial, or demeaning jobs. Don’t be afraid of them. You have a strong back and a flexible worldview that you won’t have forever, so you’re highly receptive right now to the lessons these jobs can teach you.
5. Make friends. This process also gets more difficult as you leave your twenties, so throw yourself into it now and form friendships whenever you have the opportunity.
6. Read a lot. Whatever else you’re doing during you gap year, keep books close to you. Read at least two or three of them every month and if you notice a pattern (your books are all novels, or biographies, or about the Civil War) break out of it. Reach for something different.
7. Finally, keep your mind open. The breadth and flexibility of a person’s mind are often revealed by the things that make them upset. So don’t be too easily upset. Stay calm and observant, and treat every conversation, event, and experience as an opportunity to learn something. Enjoy the adventure!
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