Why Taking a Gap Year Isn’t The Problem


I recently saw the following question posed on Quora: Will taking a gap year de-motivate my kid from going to college? The answer to this is an overwhelming NO.  At least for the 99.6% that aren’t lucky enough to launch a unicorn tech start-up.

Students are not a homogeneous group. They come in all shapes, sizes and levels of self-awarenesses. They all enter high school knowing one of three things:
(1) that they’re going to college and already know what they want to study
(2) that they’re not planning on attending college because what they want to do doesn’t require a 4YD (four year degree)
(3) that have no clue as to what to study (so either are / aren’t sure about school)

The first 2 groups are all well and fine. That 3rd group, they’re the ones that I’m going to give this piece of advice: If you don’t know how you want to contribute to society, DON’T GO STRAIGHT TO COLLEGE.

Tens of thousands of kids are shuttled off to university with no earthly idea of what they want to study. This can lead to wasted time and money (as that 4YD becomes a 5 or 6YD). Or worse yet that student gets into the job force only to have a rude awakening as they find a totally different reality to what they studied.

For those that can afford it, it would be a much better investment of that first-year tuition for that student to participate in a structured Gap Year program. Learn more about the world, others and most importantly yourself.

What if we’re assuming the wrong thing

More than anything, the question makes a subtle assumption.  That graduating college is somehow the biggest prize for that young scholar.  I contend that the goal shouldn’t be going to or evengraduating college. It should instead be to finding a way to “meaningfully contributing to positively impacting the lives of others“. Imagine how many more possibilities that subtle shift would open up for the scholar.

This would shift it from a “what do you want to do” mentality, to a “who do you want to be?” mindset.  Like most things in life, people ask the former question because it’s easier to relate what a person would does to the strengths/skills. You’ve heard it before: “Oh wow, you’re so good with numbers! You should be an Accountant.” “…an engineer.” “…a Mathematician.” This is how parents and society condition students to focus on their strengths when looking for potential careers.

Read also: What I Wish I’d Learned In High School

From Strengths to Values Focused

We want our kids to be “successful” (code for not destitute) way more than we want them to be “happy and fulfilled”. Some may even think “Hey if they get the latter as a side benefit, great. But you have to be successful at all costs.

This is how we end up with 85% of the workforce hating their jobs.  They did what teachers said they were good at (strengths). They got degrees that made their parents proud. They landed jobs that fit society’s definition of success. Yet, it didn’t keep them happy. ?

We should encourage our scholars to find out what is truly meaningful to them. Using a list of Core Values, select 10. Then narrow down to 4. Finally, reduce it to your top 2. After identifying your core values, look for careers that allow you to perform those core values using your strengths and skills. Starting from this place is how you start them on a path of meaningful work.

Be guided by your values and not by your strengths

Strengths: career first then meaning = Frustration
Values: meaning first then career = Fulfillment

How My Life Might’ve Turned Out

From an early age, friends and family told me that I was good at numbers (math) and logical thinking (puzzles). It  wasn’t long before I started hearing “You should be an Engineer.” or “You’re going to be an Engineer when you grow up.”  So that’s what I became.  I was firmly in the 1st group of high school Freshman mentioned above.

However, if I were asked what is it that I truly loved and valued, I might’ve chosen a different field.  I loved and valued creativity, variety, story, resourcefulness. Chances are I might’ve landed in a Design School studying Industrial or Graphic Design.  Instead of solving problems of throughput and efficiency, I might’ve been solving problems of User Experience, Employee Engagement or Content Marketing.

In the end, a Gap Year can be quite beneficial to students unsure of their future plans. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the student wouldn’t lose interest in college. What is most important is making sure parents (with egos divorced from our child’s perceived success or lack thereof) switch from a strengths-first approach to a values-first approach to the child’s future. This way you’ll give yourself a much better chance of being in the 15% of people that are truly happy at work.  That is true success.