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Gap year: a way to discover clues about your future

Updated: 2015-06-25 17:04
By Zhu Yingnan (chinadaily.com.cn)

Editor notes: This article, written by David Zhu (Zhu Yingnan) in the summer of 2011, is part of our coverage of these who undertake a gap year. We share his story about his eight-month “gap year” in Beijing and hope it helps those who still have no clues about their future in this graduation season.

I hesitated for several months in 2010 before making the final decision to suspend my fourth year at the University of Columbia in order to undertake a gap year in Beijing where I know myself and the world more.

Eight months ago, I took a leap of faith and decided to take a year off from my life as a student. It was the first time that I was not one since kindergarten. Schools are fun, and having been through 10 different schools growing up, I can confidently say I was not so afraid of switching again to a new environment.

People had all sorts of reactions to my decision. At first, I cared a lot. My parents were vocally against it and my college friends thought I was doing something terribly stupid. Unsurprisingly, I grew further from some of my closest friends in college by missing out on my senior year, but such is how many college cliques works - bonds fueled on the amount of time spent together. But I was not without support and looking back, I must thank those that inspired me to take this step.

Eight months passed. When I now tell someone that I took a year off, I still get lots of questions:

Q: "Why did you take a gap year?"

A: Because I wanted to.

Q: "What did you do?"

A: A lot.

Q: "What did you learn?"

A: A lot more.

I wish there was a simple way to describe it all with words. But words do a terrible job in capturing emotions efficiently. The most I can do is list my projects and achievements in resume-like fashion as if it was an interview. But that's not the whole story; it's just the cover, and maybe the table of contents.

Taking a gap year was about living the unpackaged life, displacing myself from the support system that it has gotten so used to. It was testing assumptions, be wrong, be right and formulating a view less breakable, a mind less shakable. It was introspection.

How often do you think to yourself: "I'm not like that," "That's not who I am," "That's not how I do things," or "That's not what I want"? If you think like this often, then congratulations, you seem to know yourself pretty well. For me, these lines didn't come up often enough throughout my three years of college. Sure, it was important to keep an open mind, but open-mindedness is hardly self-awareness, and one doesn't always lead to the next, because too many different experiences at one time can sometimes confuse you and make you less aware of the self.

Exactly one year ago, I was struggling between the idea of becoming an entrepreneur and taking the traditional corporate path. I had trouble deciding if it's better to make a thousand acquaintances or maintain a dozen close friends. I couldn't decide if I should dive into China as early as possible before the window of opportunity closed, or spend more time in the US to develop myself before doing so. I sometimes relied on the judgment of others because I didn't trust myself enough. I had a strong desire to take my path to China and reconnect my roots, but I didn't know how.

I had a lot to reconcile.

In the past eight months, I have done each of these conflicts some justice. I've found some valuable insights to these questions - some answered in full, some yet to be solved.

Eight months later, I look into the mirror and see someone that I know better. After all, it's me that I have to deal with for my entire life and getting to know myself better is probably more useful than knowing anyone else.

I made a few summaries below based on my experiences in China. Hopefully, if you ever decide to take a gap year, you may find some of these helpful.

Real life doesn't give out award certificates. No one is obliged to be your friend and spend his or her precious time on you with zero extrinsic motivators. Real life is filled with result-oriented individuals, some materialistic, some pretentious, but all pragmatic. Useless relationships die after one meal; useful relationships rekindle after months-long gaps. This is true whether you're talking to entry-level employees or attending high-profile networking cocktails.

Beijing is a tough place to be. It focuses the many desires of China into a tip so sharp that you can sense it in the directness of how people approach you for things. Office politics are layered in matrices of personal relationships. Sentences can be delivered in 10 ways but interpreted in 20. Thinking too much is better than thinking not enough and never trust anyone that you can't verify through another friend.

As students we honestly don't think much about age. We are in the educational system, which puts us in the right places at the right age. But in the real world these restrictions are looser. How old are you? How old do people think you are? How old would you like to be? How old would you need to be? But really, how old can you be? Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time, but you might be at the wrong age. In the West, youth is good. Youth is energy, opportunities, and possibilities. But in China, youth is immaturity. It equates to inexperience and to most people screams unreliability.

We often think of discrimination in terms of gender, race and other common distinctions. But age is just as key, and twice as severe in a country that has a hierarchical system by age. What I'm trying to say is this: Don't let age limit you, but also don't misperceive your own mental age. With age comes a sense of calmness or easiness. The nirvana stage of life. The moment when you have gained full control of the self. Try to get there the fastest way possible, because only then can you stop worrying and start producing.

Unfortunately during my short gap year, I did not manage to find what I'd consider the meaning of life. But the general idea is to find it eventually. Something. Anything. The problem with most college graduates is that once one graduates, one gets lost. One finds a job. One meets a boy/girl. One marries, has kids, and realizes it's too late to change careers because costs have become too high.

So for those who have asked me whether they should follow their dream or follow what their parents asked them to do after college, my advice has always been - follow your dream, follow it early, and prepare well. Whatever you do, do it for a virtuous purpose. Money, fame, bottles-and-models, are simply not virtuous purposes. Honor (not fame), pride (not ego), and the well-beings of others (family, friends, even strangers) are.

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