Gap Year and Your Career: Take Some Time and Get Ahead

One month shy of graduation, I was reflecting on the end of my academic life, and the beginning of my actual career, and I came to a serious realization – I had no idea what I really wanted to do. I had invested four years into a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Business Administration at the University of Southern California, and in spite of all the knowledge I had gained, I hadn’t had the foresight to truly plan out my next steps. I was always so busy enjoying every second of the “best four years of my life” that I hadn’t taken the time to think about what I wanted to do for the next forty. This was a bit of a problem. What to do?

That’s when I made a decision, on a whim, which I now consider one of the best choices I’ve ever made: I took a year off (a “gap year”). While all my peers were jumping straight into the hustle and bustle of corporate America, I did exactly the opposite. First I took a three-month trip up to Canada to work as a tree planter (a manual labor job where you live in a tent in the woods and plant tree saplings for nine hours a day), and then I took all the money I made and spent it on a seven month adventure through South East Asia. Which, up to this point, is one of the highlights of my life.

Looking back, it’s amazing that so many of my friends thought that taking a year off to travel was a horrible decision. “Justin, think about your career! How do you expect to make up all that lost time?” However, what’s a year? Many people end up, for various reasons, unemployed for some stretches over the course of a career. So, while my peers were collecting a year of work experience that will ultimately blend into an expectantly homogenous forty-year career, I was collecting unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The truth is, after it was all said and done, I hadn’t lost anything because I spent a year gaining valuable experience – an experience that made me even more employable when I did enter the job market. 

Below I’ve illustrated why taking a year off to see the world will actually enhance your career, and not hinder it. Perhaps a gap year is also right for you!

Gain a Broader Perspective

One thing that every person should experience in his or her life is a cultural shock or the experience of total confusion at a societal norm that completely challenges the norms of your daily life. After seven months in Southeast Asia, I saw a plethora of things that I couldn’t have ever imagined as a college graduate from California. 

After experiencing culture shock, you start to realize your preconceived notions of normalcy are not all fair or correct, and that beliefs you thought were undeniable truths are actually just social constructs. This consciousness generates an open-mindedness that is more accepting of different perspectives. This is an invaluable tool at the start of your career. This experience will give you an edge in any interview.

Interact with People Who Have Different Perspectives and Personalities

While in Southeast Asia I spent the majority of my time traveling with Western Europeans. Meeting hundreds of people from different backgrounds meant that I met people with hundreds of different perspectives, who came from a variety of unique cultures. Learning how to interact with people who have a multitude of viewpoints is definitely a perk when entering a professional environment. I knew how to navigate the complexities (and difficulties) that can arise when people have very different values, cultures, norms, and perspectives. 

Travel is similar to the workplace in that you don’t have control over the people you interact with, and you need some degree of cooperation between the parties. Unless you are at the top of a business hierarchy, chances are you will have zero input in deciding whom you work with; it is important to understand and respect our work peers and to be able to see things from their perspective (even if we don’t agree). Traveling was, in hindsight, intense training for me, and it would have likely taken many years to get that same experience if I’d gone straight from university to a job. It is important to learn how to cooperate with people possessing differing perspectives and personalities.

Build Confidence & Problem-Solving Skills

I was absolutely terrified before I got on the plane to Southeast Asia. I had never traveled alone, and it was my first trip to a country where I did not speak the language.  I was so nervous about my trip that the thought of canceling it had, indeed, crossed my mind in the weeks prior to leaving. However, navigating new cultures gave me a lot of time to practice creative problem-solving skills! Now, on the other side of the experience, I realize my fears were normal since I was so green back then; it was definitely a personal growth experience. Today, I am a confident traveler, and I know that I could go anywhere on earth, and be completely capable. As a result, I have new aspirations for the future, and have considered jobs in Hong Kong or Singapore –  the world is my oyster.

This confidence is quite useful in your career. The process of moving from one company to another is very similar to the experience of traveling to a new country. Often, the nervousness associated with switching companies is rooted in the fear of the unknown. Although it is surely possible to glean information about corporate culture from the interview process, the intangible experience of working at a company is something that cannot be described, only experienced. Being confident that you can thrive in any climate will quell your fears and allow you to be more open to new opportunities.

Gain a Unique Experience to Discuss with Employers

An interview is not just a test of your skills, but it is also an assessment of whether or not you will fit into the organization’s corporate culture. An interview is a perfect time to share your travel story (or stories!). Not only does it act as an icebreaker, but it also shows the interviewer that you have the skills and personal assets discussed above: you have a broad cultural view, the ability to interact with multiple personality types, problem-solving skills, and you exude self-confidence. Furthermore, it gives you an easy, non-polarizing topic to discuss with your interviewer.

Find Clarity & Define Goals

Lots of people graduate from college and still don’t know exactly what they want to do when they grow up. This is another instance when a gap year can be extremely helpful. Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of academia and the working world can be a great way to clear your mind, and decide exactly what career to pursue. I met plenty of people in Southeast Asia who were teaching English abroad as a way to test out whether or not they really wanted to teach full-time. I also met people who were working at hostels or for travel companies, and at the same time, they were actively determining if hospitality was the field for them. My favorite travel buddy even found a couple of acting gigs in Australia, so you never know what opportunities will become available to you! Even if none of these work opportunities end up being your dream career, it broadens your range of experiences – and gives you the ability to make an informed decision when you return home.

In the end, taking a year off to travel was one of the very best decisions I’ve ever made, no doubt. Not only was it a ton of fun, but it was in no way a sacrifice. One year in the grand scheme of things is a tiny amount of time, and it gave me a career-long edge over typical candidates. I’ve tried to convince everyone I talk to that they should take some time off to go traveling, see the world, and broaden their horizons. Most importantly, the amazing and unique experiences you have are simply impossible to replicate at home.

How did a gap year benefit your career? Share with us in the comments!

Article Updated from the Original on June 5, 2019