What someone chooses to do after graduating high school draws many opinions.
Relatives, friends, and even random strangers — while they might mean well — all have their own thoughts on what it means to be a good member of society.
The (usually well-meaning) judging starts even before we graduate, with the dreaded question, “So, what do you want to do after high school?” I don’t think most people intend to be overwhelming. It’s just something you ask.
But the trouble is that you can never please everyone.
Some people want to hear that you’ve been accepted into a prestigious college and are aiming for a spectacular career.
Others wonder why you haven’t just found a job with more hours yet, so you can start learning to work hard.
And if you don’t know where you want to go with your life yet?
Well, that was me after graduating high school. And I can say from experience that the reactions aren’t always pleasant. At best, there’s often polite disappointment. At worst, sometimes outright beratement and condescending ‘advice’.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do immediately after high school. So many interests rattled around in my head that I just couldn’t seem to settle on one to pursue. College? Careers? How is anyone supposed to figure that out before legal adulthood?
Though I enjoy learning and the idea of college intrigued me, the price tag for something I may not have ended up using did not. And I already had a job. But was it right to work at turning into a career? What other options were there?
At the advice of my parents, I ultimately decided to not decide. Not yet.
I would take a gap year, and give myself the chance to try some things out — without feeling pressured by others’ expectations. Did it mean staying at home an extra year? Yes, and I was blessed to have parents that not only allowed but encouraged it. I’m glad I followed their nudges.
And here’s why:
I Figured Out What I Like to Do With My Time
High school takes up a lot of time — who knew?
And even though I was able to tailor extracurricular activities to my tastes, and discover many of my hobbies and preferences, I didn’t truly figure them out until there was suddenly a huge school-shaped hole in my schedule.
Turns out, I only enjoyed some hobbies because they were what was available to me at the time, or because they meant I got to see friends. I may have considered them large parts of my identity then, but surprisingly, I wouldn’t continue them now.
And on the other hand, I got to try new things that I didn’t have time for before. Some were short-lived, others continue to be a routine part of my life. But the trying is a worthwhile journey in itself.
As I tried things out, experimented, and figured out where my passions actually were, I’ve been able to construct a valuable blueprint full of insights into who I am and what I might continue to do with the rest of my life.
I Learned More About Who I Am
They say knowing yourself is key, and my gap year gave me a chance to do just that.
When you’re experimenting and trying new things, you can’t help but learn about yourself in the process. Not just about what you like to do, but about who you are as a person.
Turns out, I’m not very patient, but I’m braver than I thought. Starting and keeping lively conversations is a skill that doesn’t come easily to me, but pouring out my feelings on paper — through paragraphs or poems — feels almost as natural as breathing. I can’t stand conflict, but still struggle to figure out whether to respond with humor, apology, reassurance, or simply silence.
These have been valuable lessons to learn about myself, and they’ve affected the things I choose to do. Of course I already knew parts about who I was throughout high school, but things get clearer as you step out into unknown territory and see life and yourself from new angles.
As I’ve learned more about myself as a person, choosing what to pursue in life has gotten easier. Why waste time doing things I know will only cause me unproductive stress, if I can help it? And why miss a good opportunity to grow in a quality or skill I’m sorely lacking?
I Got to Be Available and Help Other People
My gap year involved more hours at my job, a lot of writing (a hobby I was curious whether I could turn into something more — and have), and, most of all, volunteering and being available for loved ones and local organizations.
I think most people would love to be involved in more of the efforts and charities around them. The benefits to helping others are countless, for the receiver and for the helper. But we all only have so many hours in the day, so many resources at our disposal, and only one us.
Priorities have to be set if we’re to keep any sort of steady footing in our lives. And thankfully, during my gap year, I got to set volunteering and randomly helping people out as one of my top priorities. If a food pantry needed help distributing boxes? I could be there. If a family member needed a nap and someone to watch her newborn for an hour or two, I could offer to help.
And of course, as I was trying to be a blessing to others, I got to learn even more about myself and my strengths and weaknesses. Those insights have allowed me to continue serving others where I can be most helpful, even as my schedule has filled and I can’t be available for everything any more.
I stayed plenty busy during my gap year, but there was a sense of freedom. Nothing was being forced on me just yet, and while I was working hard, it was mostly at things that I enjoyed, I was learning through, and I chose. Looking back on the amount of people I got to help made the year worth it by itself.
Maybe you’re wondering how me taking a gap year has anything to do with these things. After all, we’re figuring out our passions, learning more about ourselves, and helping other people all throughout our lives. And that’s true — the growing never stops.
Gap years are different for everyone. And that’s precisely the point. They’re meant to be pause buttons of a sort. Stepping stones between high school and adulthood. A chance to intentionally grow, learn, and experience new things in ways that the pressures and responsibilities of life may hinder after committing to college or full-time careers.
They’re not for everyone. Some people know before they even finish high school exactly what college they want to attend and why, who they’re going to marry and raise a family with, or what job they intend to rise the ranks in. And I think it’s great if you have that kind of clarity!
I simply didn’t yet, and I know many have shared that experience.
Which is why I’m glad I took a gap year after graduating high school.
The questions, the pressure, and the thinly-veiled judging haven’t entirely stopped. But, as I’ve learned, they won’t. No one is ever going to agree with all our choices, and that’s okay. What matters is that we’re following God, doing our best, and constantly seeking to learn and grow.
My gap year has ended now, replaced by the crazy schedule of work and other obligations. But the things I learned during that year; about myself, my passions, and how I can best serve others, have proven priceless.
Looking back, I see the choices I considered making about my future before deciding on a gap year would have led me down a path I don’t want. Not necessarily a bad future. But not the right one either. Not one that fits as well.
So I’m glad I took a step back and allowed myself some time to breathe.
I’m glad I was able to be intentional about my growth and learning journey.
I’m glad I took a gap year.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV)
1.This post can also be found (along with others) on my Medium profile, here.