10 Things I Learned in My Gap Year
And why you should consider giving one…
Have you ever felt like you have not discovered your purpose yet? But everyone you know had done so, more or less, and determined a path for themselves.
I felt like that when I was about to graduate. That made me unable to follow a profession and left me confused. Some people even live their lives without ever getting to know their passions and I didn’t want to be one.
It is common not knowing what to do, not feeling like you know yourself. Maybe you changed, but not in parallel with your chosen life. But all is not lost. Through exposing yourself to completely new and challenging situations, you can get to understand yourself better.
The gap year helped me to pause and think about what I really want, discover where my passions lie, meet so many amazing people, travel to 10 new countries and volunteer in some of my dream jobs.
I got to live with Buddhist monks in a meditation center, worked in one of the biggest festivals in the world, picked grapes to make wine, worked in a surf camp as a photographer, experienced being a tour guide in a social hostel, managed events in a non-government organization and worked in a diving center.
First of all, this is not a time I comfortably traveled through Europe, stayed only in nice places, joined tours, knew what I was going to do the next day and scattered cash like crazy while doing all of that. No. This is a time where I planned things day by day, applied to volunteering opportunities constantly, dealt with challenging situations every day, not being sure of what tomorrow would bring but enjoyed every moment of it.
Overall I traveled to/worked in the following places:
Secondly, this is a learning experience. I did not have the whole year planned.
My original plan was to go to Budapest to stay for 3 months and work for an Erasmus student company. What I ended up doing was to go to 10 countries, work in all sorts of jobs, leave my luggage at friends to travel light, without much of a plan.
I certainly did not take into account the virus but it all turned out just fine. I was where I needed to be when I needed to be. By March 2020, I had done all the traveling I wanted, so I was happy to stay at home after that and do other things like reading books or taking online courses. Again, it is about enjoying every moment, not controlling what happens outside.
I share the things I learned about myself, others, the gap year and traveling respectively in my journey.
I learned a lot about myself; mainly things like what I enjoy doing and don’t, what I like to improve about myself and what kind of person I would like to be.
1. Flexibility and adaptibility
When you are working in different places, traveling in between and things are new all the time, you need to keep yourself flexible. If you have strict rules and rigid plans, it just causes stress and tension. I did not make longer plans than a week and this allowed me to add last-minute plans and enjoy new adventures as they came along.
As I was volunteering in a place, I just observed if I liked what I was doing, enjoyed people I talked to and savored my experiences in that country. This allowed me to go with the flow, extend my stay if I thought I could do more things in that place, leave early if I felt like my time could be better spent.
Originally, I went to Budapest as an event organizer for an Erasmus student network company. I applied through AIESEC and they invited me to volunteer there. I had done my research and the company had a deal with the Sziget festival so I asked to come before my original date to work in the festival too (so it takes some research to create opportunities).
Things all worked out and it was the best time! I met so many people during the festival and one of them intoduced me to the portal called Workaway. Through this, you find all sorts of volunteering jobs in any country and work for 4–5 hours a day, 5 days a week in exchange for accommodation and food. That was exactly what I needed to travel and work in different jobs with the minimum cost…
I know, working in very cool jobs sounds pretty amazing. Honestly, I always went for the right place for the right job; France for making wine, Portugal for surfing, Egypt for diving. Looking back on all the amazing memories I’ve had, it was the best people that made the craziest memories, not the most beautiful places.
I have made some lifelong friendships on my way and I will always be grateful for that. Especially through hardship, people tend to stick together more.
In Madrid, I was volunteering in a Buddhist meditation center. I have always been curious about their way of living so it was a great opportunity to learn and grow. It didn’t turn out to be what I imagined.
Very few of them spoke in English and this was a big problem for me as I didn’t speak Spanish. I could not participate in the majority of the lessons or the meditation retreats. I was glad to meet Cecile, who accompanied me as a non-spanish speaker, I could have felt detached from the whole experience not being able to understand anything.
She and I became very good friends and had great memories at the meditation center. I made the most of my time there and met the monks able to speak English to learn from them directly.
When looked from a wider angle, you can learn from everything and everyone. Listen to others fully and intently is the golden rule here. This has been the most useful habit I had so far. It helped me to talk to different people and develop empathy.
I met an old man in Egypt who told me a lot of mistakes he did, wished he hadn’t done. It was one of the best conversations I had.
We got to talk about all the important things we think we know but neglect until it is gone anyway. It was enlightening for me. Another time, I met a SpaceX employee, who was in charge of one of the legs of the rocket, and I asked every question I had in my mind.
I follow Elon Musk news very closely, so he was a bit shocked at my knowledge and even commented I may know more than some of the employees themselves. Insider information, yes he fires people when angry without any reason, the kindergarten for genius children of SpaceX works like magic and he sometimes does things just to get attention and PR.
About Other People
I met so many people from so many countries and we got to talk about life, passions, and all sorts of topics. It broadened my perspective when I realized everyone is so different yet so alike.
I met people that have been through very difficult things in life. They lost people, fought a disease or faced their fears at a very early age. It even made me wonder why life is testing them so hard. When you get to know them further and understand their perspective, you develop empathy.
Most importantly, you never know what people have been through unless they decide to share it with you. So sparing some benefit of the doubt helps you when interacting with people.
I was volunteering in Romania and things were going pretty good for me, I was just waking up after having organized a successful Halloween celebration, which was my first celebration too, and went along well with everyone. Then, a Russian girl arrived at our apartment. Unfortunately, she did not talk to any of us, cried the whole time and acted very upset for days.
Most of the volunteers started ignoring her as they were tired of getting rejected. I did not give up on her because a person would not act this way unless something is clearly wrong. As we built more and more trust, she started opening up. It turns out she just got divorced on bad terms (she did not look very old but maybe she had good genes) and that was why she was upset.
Later, she joined a gym, started getting along well with other volunteers and had a great time there. I believe everyone deserves some empathy.
About Gap Year
I knew no one taking a break from the classic work or study path. So it was a bold decision for me. I certainly did not know enough about the options when I started the gap year. I learned as I go.
To have guidelines through the year, I have made lists on what I wanted to do and acted on them. Those of you who know me probably have already seen those lists. I use them as a guideline but try to keep flexibility by subjecting them to changes.
I have listed books to read, movies to watch, jobs to work on, adventures to try, festivals to go to, long-term goals, personal goals, etc. It feels amazing when I cross one of them.
They generally requires a lot of effort so it is not about just crossing but mostly about the journey. This is a huge list and I know it may never get finished and that’s perfectly fine.
To exemplify, I have the goal of running a marathon sometime. Even though I ran a half marathon about a year ago, I know it is not going to be just two times harder but so much more.
It is going to take a lot of physical and mental training. It is okay if it doesn’t happen this year or the next but I think it is about continuing the training and working toward the goal. I was running in the streets of the country I was in so that I could train and get ready. It is relatively easy to run in the streets, parks and my favorite, around the lakes.
I have spent a fair amount of time facing a screen, exploring options or determining the next steps. Things don’t magically work out. Yes, luck is a component that helps but you can’t rely only on it.
There are many things to consider while choosing a volunteering job in a country. At least for me. First of all, there is the location. I had tried to choose the countries that were next to other countries I haven’t been to. Secondly, there is the job itself. I tried to choose the jobs I was curious about, had a challenging nature and new to me.
Thirdly, there is budgeting. What is the easiest and most convenient way to get there? Sometimes low-cost airlines like WizzAir or RyanAir offer an amazing deal, other times Flixbus is the obvious answer. Some comparisons help with the decision. It seems like these are details but when you choose strategically, you ease the processes for future relocation and increase convenience.
Luck is like magic. Sometimes, things work out when it seems like it is most complicated. One person you meet tells you about something or the place is exactly what you need. You never know.
I think I am a lucky person. I meet with wonderful people and things work out quite well. Then again, I do my research and trust myself to overcome challenges. So, there should be a kind of balance between planning and luck.
While I was in Jordan, I met a lovely Italian woman in my hostel in Amman. I booked another night to come back after I visit the Dead Sea and then head for Petra the next day.
Coincidentally, I ran into her in the Dead Sea and she told me that she was sharing a car with a Spanish couple and were on their way to Petra. It wasn’t before the other day that I would go there. Apparently, “Petra by Night”, a magical way to see the rock city by candlelight and live music happened only that day.
So, I called the hostel and asked them to put the invaluable stuff I left there, like t-shirts, in a bag which I would pick later. I joined them and I am really glad I did. I met a tour guide after the show, happy to show me around the city and talk about their culture. What would you call that if not luck?
The time to find your purpose and discover your passions is not only for the newly graduates. It is for everyone who believes there is more to discover about themselves and willing to challenge themselves.
I have met people who finished high school just now who decided to take a year off or those above 40, who decided to quit their jobs, travel and get to know themselves better. I think it is brave to do it no matter what age you are. If you are not sure you are fulfilling your dreams or just want to discover the world more, then why not?
Through experience, I got to see what works best for me (sometimes in the hard way) and want to share them in case it helps you realize what works best for you.
I enjoy other people, cultures and learning new things. I do. But when I over-do it, I need the alone time to recover. I worked in social hostels or jobs needing one to one interactions with customers.
To recharge myself, I would go for a run with my headphones or read a book in peace, somewhere I would not be disturbed. It is all about balance and the only person who can find that balance is you.
When I was volunteering in Budapest, the hostel I stayed at had made deals with other hostels abroad and staff could stay there for free. I traveled a lot to visit new places during my spare time and used the main place as a center where I can leave all my stuff and travel light.
However, when I did that quite often in a short time, I got tired, found myself restless and craving for healthy food. Then I decided to travel mostly by volunteering, covering fewer places but experiencing more. Sustainability is important if the traveling period is long.
I learned that most of the clothes I put, I don’t need them. I know it is a basic rule but it is very easy to over-pack. If something does not go with all the stuff you already put, don’t bother having it.
The last thing you would want would be carrying a very heavy suitcase, 30 kg in my case with a broken wheel after a while. I am lucky enough to have trusted friends to leave my luggage at times and carry on with a small bag to the most of the places I went to.
I have this rule: If you have 2 of everything, you’re good to go. This applies to everything including earphones, chargers, shoes, t-shirts, etc. Okay, maybe more than 2 t-shirts.
Overall, I spent a wonderful time and learned so much. I have so many adventures or memories that I am grateful for having. Again, some people I met will be a part of my life. I can safely say I would recommend giving a gap year and would be happy to help those thinking of giving one.
A tech enthusiast interested in innovation and entrepeneurship