I hadn’t even heard of the gap year until I was 20 years old, backpacking across Greece with my friend from the French university where I was studying abroad. In one of the hostels we stayed at, the receptionist was a girl from Mexico. She was my age, and she told us she had been working there for the past few months as a part of her gap year travels.
Her face and her story stuck with me, mostly because at the time none of it made sense to my suburban American brain. I came from a world of strict timelines: you graduated high school, enrolled in a four-year university and well, you know, that boring drill that leads people to mid-life crises later on.
But that’s just it—gap years prevent mid-life crises later on. They allow us coddled first-world kids to venture outside of what we know and experience this great big world—with all its privileges and responsibilities. They allow us to really understand what we are passionate about, what we can’t live with or without, and what it is we actually want to be doing for the rest of our lives (or at least the next few years).
And for what it’s worth, it’s never too late to take a gap year, often called a sabbatical when it’s later on in life. Most of the most interesting and accomplished people I know took time for a sabbatical mid-career. Of course, it’s much harder if you’ve got kids and a mortgage, but it’s definitely not impossible.
Here’s some logic and rationale on why taking a gap year / sabbatical makes sense:
It’s not a luxury and it doesn’t have to be expensive
I’ve seen a lot of people frown at the gap year, telling me it’s for the rich and wealthy—that working class families can’t afford this form of luxury. But they can, they really can. Gap Years aren’t about first class flights and five star resorts: they’re about gathering up the coins from your coin jar, working a part time job during high school to save up some money for your international fight and then getting the flight with the worst connections and lots of idle time sleeping at the airport. And once you’re at your destination gap years often involve some sort of work (the humbling kind, for sure) and plenty of no-frills, humbling living.
It teaches real, transferable skills
Remember that special word that recruiters use all the time; transferable skills are the skills you take with you from one one job to another, skills independent of industry or geography. We’re talking communication skills, adaptability, sharpness, nimble and quick thinking. Even Harvard, the stronghold of American tradition in upper education now encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for a year “to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”
It fosters empathy and emotional IQ
This is a bit fuzzier, but when we travel, we get to see other ways of life- we get the experience of being the minority, not speaking the local language; being a tiny fish in a big sea. This creates tons of empathy (all of a sudden it’s much easier to put yourself in others’ shoes) and develops a keen sense of reading people, knowing how to communicate with your hands and feet and make yourself understood. This seemingly nebulous skill is one of those “je ne sais quoi” factors we value in our leaders, well documented in the ever-famous How to win friends and influence people, a book that has been on business schools’ required reading lists for decades.
It’s absolutely not a waste of time
We’re a culture so driven by an obsession with the scarcity of time (there’s never enough and we’re always busy), and I see a lot of people, both recent graduates and professionals who are contemplating taking time off, that they are going to lose time by spending it traveling. This is a fallacy. It’s an investment in your future that pays for itself many times over–both in quality of life (ie actually enjoying what you do for your 9-5) as well as your hire-ability and your well-rounded-ness as a human.
Even the Bible says so
Turns out, the word sabbatical itself comes from the Bible- related closely to the Hebrew word Shabbat, it literally means to cease. The concept has its roots in Shmita (Leviticus 25), which is a sabbatical year, the last year of the seven year agricultural cycle which demands that the land be allowed to rest–during this time no plowing, planting, pruning, harvesting is allowed. As a result, bountiful harvests are promised. I love this bit of religious history, and though I’m not religious there’s a lot of wisdom here: let the soil rest so it can produce later on. Why would we humans be any different?
So I’m a bit passionate about this; all I’m asking is we do society a favor and promote traveling and exploration by both young people and people who just need a refreshed perspective from their day to day. It’s an investment, and we must learn to sow patiently, with breaks for the soil, before we can reap.
Also by Irina: Best Tips for Getting Enough Protein in a Vegan Diet
7 Reasons to Visit the Real Mexico
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!