March 6, 2014
One month short of graduation, looking at the end of my academic career and the beginning of my actual career, I came to a realization: I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had put four years into a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Business Administration at the University of Southern California, and with all the knowledge I had gained, I hadn’t had the foresight to really plan out what my next step was. 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.
That’s when I made a decision, on a whim, which I now consider one of the best decisions I’ve ever made: I took a year off. While all my peers were jumping straight into the hustle and bustle of corporate America, I did the exact 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 how many of my friends thought that taking a year off was a horrible decision. “Justin, think about your career! How do you expect to make up all that lost time?” However, while my peers were collecting a year of work experience that will ultimately blend into an expectantly homogenous forty-year career, I was collecting once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The truth is, after it was all said and done, I hadn’t lost a step on any of my peers because I spent a year gaining 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 not leave you behind, but rather place you ahead.
Gain a broader perspective
One thing that every person should experience in his or her life is cultural shock, or the experience of total confusion at a societal norm that completely challenges everything in your life. After seven months in Southeast Asia, I saw a plethora of things that I couldn’t have imagined as a college graduate from California.
After experiencing cultural shock you start to realize that not all of your preconceived notions of normalcy are 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 your career.
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. Learning how to interact with people who have a multitude of viewpoints is a huge advantage when entering a professional environment.
Working is similar to traveling alone in that you don’t have control over the people you interact with. Unless you are at the top of a business hierarchy, chances are you will have little to zero input in deciding whom you work with. Thus, it is important to learn how to cooperate with people possessing differing perspectives and personalities.
I was absolutely terrified before I got on my plane to Southeast Asia. I had never traveled alone, or gone somewhere that I did not speak the language. I was so nervous about my trip that the thought of canceling my ticket crossed my mind in the weeks prior to leaving. Now, on the other side of the experience, I realize how ridiculous that was. Today, I am confident in knowing that I could go anywhere and be completely capable. As a result, considering jobs in Hong Kong or Singapore has become a personal interest and is a new aspiration for the future.
This confidence is 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 a fear of the unknown, and although it is possible to glean bits and pieces about the corporate culture from the interview process, the intangible experience of working at a company is something that cannot be described, only experienced. Having the confidence that you can thrive in any climate will quell 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 a test of whether or not you fit into the corporate culture of the company. This is when having a good traveling story will help. Not only does it act as an icebreaker, but it also shows the interviewer that you have the skills discussed above. For example, you have a broad cultural view—the ability to interact with multiple personality types—and you exude self-confidence. Furthermore, it gives you an easy, non-polarizing topic to discuss with your interviewer.
Find clarity in what you want to do with your career
Lots of people graduate college and still don’t know exactly what they want to do. This is another instance when a gap year can be extremely helpful. Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the working world can be a great way to clear your mind and decide exactly what career to pursue. I met lots of people in Southeast Asia who were teaching English as a way to decide whether or not they wanted to teach full-time. Also, I met people who were working at hostels or for travel companies, and actively determining if hospitality was the field for them. My 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 stick, 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 best decisions I’ve ever made. 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. 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 impossible to replicate at home.
How did a gap year benefit your career? Share with us in the comments.