Midway through my gap year, I remember the distinct feeling of a slump wash over me. I was frustrated because it didn’t seem like anything I was working toward was panning out. I was overwhelmed by what to do next.
What I know now, and wish I could have told myself then, is that not only are these feelings normal, they’re part of navigating your life and shaping what you want it to be. One of the most incredible aspects of a gap year is that it makes you ask questions of yourself: What do I want? How do I get it? Where am I going, and why? Despite being considered a “year off” or “year away,” a gap year has a heavy real-life side that forces you to get to the heart of who you are and what you aspire to do. It makes you grow. I wish my former gap-year-self knew that sometimes, growth is uncomfortable, decidedly not glamorous, and confusing.Though gap years are known for their academic and professional benefits one of the most underestimated parts of the gap year experience is what happens personally. According to UC Berkeley, gap years are “a time for making mistakes and learning from them. It’s not supposed to be easy,” which would have been nice to know as a nineteen-year-old forging her own path out of school. That got me thinking: What else do I wish I’d known about gap years prior to embarking on my own?
When my gap year began, I had a vision of what it would look like, and it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Some parts were an uphill battle every step of the way, and others ended up better than I could’ve dreamed. In the name of opening up the conversation, here are my top gap year regrets, and what I wish I’d known about them.
Sometimes you’ll feel directionless.
Whether you’re self-directing your gap year, like I did, or are part of a program, you will likely hit a point where you feel like you have no idea where you’re going or what you should be doing. I thought some heavy-duty planning could help me outrun the “feeling lost” part, but that wasn’t realistic. It also isn’t uncommon: Young adulthood is a notoriously uncertain phase, roughly 39% of students will feel hopeless at some point during college, and switching majors is common. At one point during my gap year, I believed that feeling adrift meant that I was doing the wrong things. In reality, it was a transitional phase...and sometimes, the route from point A to point B doesn’t feel seamless. What I wish I’d known is that in order to find your direction, you have to pick a point and move toward it, even if you have to reroute and regroup along the way. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and untethered, you’re not alone. Don’t doubt yourself because you don’t know what move to make next--give yourself permission to keep going slowly and steadily.
Things will go wrong.
It’s happened to all of us: We have the perfect plan and inevitably, something in the universe goes off-kilter and trips us up. This could be any number of things, but two moments come to mind. When I was in Europe for two weeks during my gap year, I got sick--the kind of sick you go to the doctor for and then crash on the couch for a week. Suddenly, all my planned side trips and exploits when out the window in favor of navigating a drugstore in a language I didn’t speak. Tears were involved.
Another time, at a job, I was thrown into a leadership role right before a big event. It was a sink-or-swim moment where I felt like I was scooping water out of a sinking boat, because everything that could go wrong, did: Volunteers didn’t show, equipment got delivered to the wrong address, I got screamed at by some people who had lost their tickets.
I wish I’d known that I’d still be standing, and that these things that felt like major screw-ups weren’t that catastrophic. Actually, they were crash-courses in problem solving, which is one of the top soft skills desired by employers. When things spiral during your gap year, step back, take a deep breath, and figure out how to troubleshoot knowing that things often don’t go as planned...and that’s okay.
I felt pressure to do more.
No matter what I did during my gap year, I always felt like I should’ve done more--more traveling, more internships, something more to show for my year. I regret the time I wasted trying to prove my gap year was valuable instead of soaking up every moment of it. Stress has become synonymous with today’s college students, and gap year students are no exception. I spent a ton of time feeling anxious about whether I had “done enough” to warrant taking a gap year, and wasted far too many hours comparing what I was doing to my peers’ experiences. I wish I’d known that one of the most valuable opportunities during a gap year is forging your own path, and that “it's a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
You have to get comfortable with yourself...through being uncomfortable.
Benefits of gap years include an enhanced sense of humor and humility, tolerance of discomfort and uncertainty, new language skills, increased maturity and independence, and improved decision-making skills. So, that’s the good news! The bad news is that rarely do any of these things come from feeling super comfortable. I didn’t expect my gap year to be confrontational, in a way. But it was. It made me confront parts of myself that pushed me way beyond my comfort zone in a way college never did. Suddenly, I found myself having to answer for things--was I really going to miss that opportunity because I was scared of taking it? Was I in over my head? Why couldn’t I do this without second guessing myself? And, the dreaded millennial question, what if this isn’t what I want to do with my life?I regret that I tried to stay comfortable during my gap year. Looking back, the most pivotal points, the moments where I grew the most and learned the most, were the ones where I shattered my comfort zone to pieces. Being uncomfortable made me vulnerable, which was scary. I had to admit I didn’t have all the answers. But it also made me a better critical thinker, a better listener, a strategic risk-taker, and ultimately, a better student. To get comfortable with a job or school or situation you love, you often have to go through some discomfort. Let yourself grow through that.