Taking A Gap Year

According to Wikipedia, a gap year is basically a year long break which people take before or after their university for educational and developmental purposes, during which people travel, work, volunteer, do higher learning etc. The point of the gap year is not to slack, but to explore, recharge, go after your goals and decide what you really want in life. Those who took a gap year swore by it, stating that the numerous benefits which they have obtained from the year long sabbatical.

Yet if you realise, usually only people from the West do it. In Asia, while some of the people go for a gap year, most do not. The reason all boils down to one thing – money. In the West, there are welfare benefits which the people can get from the Government. Coupled with some of their savings which they had, if lived frugally, a gap year is actually doable. In some European countries, their university education is also free, which means they do not have any student loan to worry about.

In Asia, we are not so lucky. Asians live and die by themselves. On top of the student loans and living expenses we have to pay, a year long unemployment means no benefits and no income. In Asia, only those whose parents have the money are able to provide for a gap year. That is why even though the benefits of gap year are significant, few in Asia actually does it. It is perhaps the same for those in the US too. Getting started on the rat race as early as possible is the fastest route to having a stable life.

As such, for Asians, the concept of a gap year is foreign to many people. Although they may understand what it is in their head, they would not be able to accept it. Parents and society would also frown upon it. What kind of spoilt brat would waste a year of precious youth to go out doing useless things other than studying or earning money? For many of us, wanting to take a year break to explore and to recharge have to come at our own expenses, at a stage where we depend on no one for our finances and no one has a say in how we manage our money. That stage is definitely not the period just before or just after our university.

But there is always a way out if we really want to do it. Granted we probably would not have it as easy as the Europeans, but with much hard work and determination, we could make it happen. In my post ‘How Should I Spend My University Days‘, I mentioned how we can squeeze a 4 year university programme into 3. If you managed to work hard and squeeze everything into 3 years, you have that one extra year which you can totally use it for a gap year. On top of paying lesser for the university fees which can be in turn used to fund your gap year, your time saved is invaluable. During your gap year you can also work to ensure that your basic needs are met. Afterall the purpose of a gap year is not to earn a lot of money, but to earn enough to get by so you are free to explore what the world has to offer and develop yourself.

Naturally, before starting on a gap year, you have to have a plan. Your plan may not be so detailed as to knowing exactly what to do at each time period. But it has to have a rough idea. What do you want to do? If you want to go overseas, which country is suitable? Perhaps you have heard that New Zealand offers a 6-month working holiday visa. Apply and prepare in advance. Have some idea on where to go and what to do when you get there. Do some homework, ask around, get some ideas. If your gap year is to give yourself time to do a small start-up, then you will also need to plan and prepare ahead. Set up a plan and a timeline for your progress. What are the goals you have to achieve and how long do you need to do it? With goals and a timeline, you are able to know how far ahead or how much you are lagging behind. Do you want to do volunteer work? Will your volunteer work help you in some ways? I have heard of doctors joining Doctors Without Borders for a year or two to clock that experience under their belt. Sure, it is volunteer work, but it does not have to be meaningless. If you can benefit out from it, why not? Doctors joining Doctors Without Borders may have a selfish reason, but it is also a fact that they volunteered to go into areas nobody else wanted to and I feel that it is also a respectable decision.

But let’s say it is too late for you to start a gap year right after graduation, can you still do it? You probably can, although most may call it another term called the ‘sabbatical leave’. Whatever it is called, the concept is still the same. Work for 3 or 4 years, get your debt settled and finances in order, then do your gap year. You do not necessarily have to follow the so-called standard timeline. But always remember, the one year you take has its financial cost. Missing out one year of work in the middle would mean your bonus and career progression may take a hit. This is not to discourage you from taking a gap year, but to tell you the opportunity cost involved, so that when you finally decide to take it, you will be able to plan well and use the time well so that it is all worth it in the end.

Gap years may not be be all nice and successful. Not all come out of it feeling accomplished and totally worth it. I failed horribly in mine. I came out to work immediately upon graduation, and about 2.5 years later I resigned, went to China for a month to explore. I went through a few job interviews and failed to get a suitable job. I then went on to New Zealand for more than a year, during which I fell into the pits because I was at a total loss on what to do. My purpose for the gap year was not for personal development, but to get out, explore the world and get a chance to work and live overseas long term.

I will cover my New Zealand experience in another article, but the end of it was that I failed and came back with nothing in my bank account. I had to restart all over. I even lost some of my ‘friends’ because I failed and was way behind them in terms of career and financial advancement.

But a failure can still be capitalised on. Learn from your failures, reflect and strive to be a better person. I worked very hard after I came back, and as of now I am proud to say I am doing better than people who looked down on me when I failed.

In conclusion, if you decide to take a gap year, plan ahead for it in terms of time and finances. Think through it and know what you want to achieve during that year. You may not have all the details down and it is ok. But you must at least have something better than: Things will work out when I get there. At least have some skeleton of a plan to guide you in the general direction, which may change according to the situation. If you succeed, all is well and worth it. If you fail, do not fret and give up. Stand up again and learn from your mistakes, and use it to develop yourself and become a better and more mature person than before. You still have time to pick yourself up. Even if you fail, make your gap year worth it.

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