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Reframing the Gap Year: Why Practice Should Transcend Archetype

What is the purpose of a gap year? What compels a student to take time off after graduating from high school to self-reflect, reorient, and recharge?

Erik Novak | @erikmnovak
October 22,  2019

Strapping your hiking backpack around your waist, securing your passport case and pocket dictionary, and hightailing it to the furthest recesses of the world – away from the quiet predictability of home. Immersing yourself in a culture disparate to your own, to compare customs, literature, and mythology. Volunteering in impoverished or war-stricken areas, where luxury and comfort acquire new meaning.

Many people have an idealistic view of a gap year that involves backpacking around the world, but not all gap year experiences are created equal.

This idealistic quest archetypally defines the experiences we nowadays collectively tend to ascribe to the concept of a gap year. The primary resulting benefit is also self-evident: an outward exploration of civilizational nuance should also catalyze a profound personal and intimate self-reflection where one’s life, morals and beliefs gain new meaning and context.

But not all gap years are created equal.

This rhapsody, in its full romantic form, is often inaccessible to all but the most well-connected, organized, wealthy, healthy, resilient or proactive. Yet, if so, then are the personal gains from deferring college for a year exclusive to only a select few, with others simply wasting time, losing momentum and bereaving their goals?

This question was a major concern for me when I found myself at the end of school and the beginning of my own year off. While gap years generally come from one’s own impetus and desire for growth, mine had been thrust upon me by forces far greater than I could control: my parents had started a lengthy and litigious divorce process, and I faced health concerns that required me to stay put. I knew the gap year concept people had in mind would be nearly antithetical to the experiences I would have, and worried I would essentially lose time and direction versus my peers, who would keep on going.

Today though, nine months after my deferral started, I realize I could not have been more wrong. It is true that outwardly life-changing experiences have been essentially nonexistent; and yet, the very foundations of my identity have been nonetheless shaken.

The major case-in-point of this is that I started analyzing several beliefs and truths I deemed self-evident through a lens of greater skepticism and rational inquiry. In that, I realized many of my truths were in fact subjective taste brought onto me by my surroundings. Today, I am more confident that my beliefs are my own rather than a manifestation of my immediate community’s ethos, even if many have also remained similar to what they were beforehand. Below, I illustrate 3 areas in which this happened, and the context that allowed this blossoming:

For all of its science fiction, Star Trek had a way of connecting with me that explored higher themes of humanity, religion, and prophecy.
For all of its science fiction, Star Trek had a way of connecting with me that explored higher themes of humanity, religion, and prophecy.
  1. For the longest time I rejected religion and mythology as gilded shrouds that shielded the masses from greater truths. However, I’ve come, in a moment of Nietzschean realization, to better accept their importance in relaying meta-narratives of morality and civic virtue. This speaks not about my own generally agnostic spirituality, but in a macrocosmic society-wide level. And the activity that put that in motion was none other than watching all of Star Trek Deep Space 9 (DS9) on Netflix, which I did between July 2018 and January 2019. The way the series dealt with religion, martyrdom, prophecy, and genocide, made me stop neglecting the importance of myth in our world, and start thinking of myself as merely different – not superior – for not believing in religious creed.
  2. My political awareness, up until the gap year, was a nearly subconscious assumption that, overwhelmingly, political leanings in my country comprised 3 divisions: (a) a well-educated monolith of those who generally agreed with my center-right fiscal, center-left social, and all-around moderate and measured political beliefs, with some holding more hardline stances in a few respects, but with little deviation, (b) a working class whose desperation was manipulated for votes and cronyism, (c) revolutionary or reactionary measures that were both solidly fringe. The 2018 Brazilian statewide and federal elections made me realize, however, that I was actually in the deep minority, and that moderation was in decline, with most seeking some level of effused vindication, and with centrist Presidential candidates obtaining less than 20% of the overall vote. Through all this, and in seeing close contacts fall to Sophism, emotions-based politics, and nearly-Orwellian doublethink specific to the electoral period, I realized just how malleable to the moment people can be politically. This undercut my belief that individuals will tend to act as rational actors in a system contingent upon persuasion.
  3. Perhaps the biggest impact in me pertains to the plans for my future. I am an adept of the Japanese notion of ikigai, the intersectionality of what brings one pleasure, is an addition to the world, provides personal comfort and that one can do exceptionally well. And yet, as my year progressed, the realization dawned on me that I had not been true to my ikigai at all with college and career planning. Having demonstrated an extreme adeptness for mathematics from a young age, I had been told for years something to the tune of “that’s engineering material right there” (even though my academic proclivity actually extended to a wide girth of subject areas), and thus assumed I would end up being an engineer – even all my college applications were for engineering schools. However, only in distancing myself from the intense academic life that my senior year of high school was did I realize that, looking back, the school subjects I had been fondest of were in the humanities and abstract math, rather than in approximating models in applied sciences. Were it not for a year off, I would’ve embarked on an engineering degree and only truly realize it was not ideal for me sometime down the line during an early-life crisis.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept regarding the foundations of what makes one’s life have meaning and be worthwhile.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept regarding the foundations of what makes one’s life have meaning and be worthwhile.

Indeed, all these, and several other examples relating to family, friends, aesthetics, ego and legacy, highlight a common theme: the reconditioning of my epistemological roots to treat seemingly intuitive points-of-view not as gospel, but with immediate incertitude before further research. I have now adopted the stance that to systematically doubt – open to believing but requiring some prior rumination – is the best way to know oneself.

And, against the hypothesis that such reflection would best be sparked by the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I knew I could not get, what generally propelled this paradigm shift in me was simply having more alone-time with the opportunity to question – rather than accept – occurrences around me, something the academic intensity and pre-established structure of school rarely opened up room for.

I am reminded of the parable of the two lumberjacks: in a competition to see which one could cut a thick-trunked tree the fastest, the first, a virile, thick-muscled tour-de-force, exerted maximum force for a full hour before the tree tumbled, his sweaty aching body finally able to rest, while the second, smaller and meeker, spent a half-hour sharpening his ax, and then effortlessly cut it down in the next fifteen minutes. Most of us, without thinking, would have speculated the first would win. Before my gap year, I certainly did. However, sometimes what happens in practice undercuts the archetype, and we can only foresee that through independent thought.

A gap year allowed me to reflect upon my political beliefs and those of others, particularly in the context of my home country, Brazil.
A gap year allowed me to reflect upon my political beliefs and those of others, particularly in the context of my home country, Brazil.

And now I know that the very opportunity to detach ourselves from the otherwise ubiquitous structures of modern life (whether we’re at the top of Mount Everest or in bed at home), is what enables us to look inside ourselves and only then ask the right questions and have this independent thought.

A gap year cannot be generalized for everyone. Certainly, some have already achieved greater maturity and self-reflection without needing it. And others yet would indeed spend several fruitless months without self-reflection. Even then, I still think any amount of time to re-process one’s preferences and uniqueness is pivotal after the mechanical engagements of high school. And I now know this self-discovery need not be necessitated by otherworldly outside influences, only by internal curiosity. But maybe this notion still passes right by our stuck self, inflexible to realize the second lumberjack actually stands a chance.

Erik Novak is a former international school student, having graduated from the American School of Rio De Janeiro in 2018. Several of his many roles he served in while a student included Student Council President, Model United Nations President, and Academic Decathlon Captain. Erik graduated with the IB Diploma and self studied both AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC, scoring a 5 in both.

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