Forget the Gap Year. Live a GAP LIFE

Graduation season is winding down – there are rookie MBAs (check out why I think these folks are great new hires!) and fresh-faced high school grads. For the younger set, the ubiquitous question is “What are you doing after school?”

For some, the military. For others, an apprenticeship or internship. For many, the answer is higher education – college or university, trade or technical school. For a select few, it might be a gap year.

If you’ve not heard about gap years, here’s the overarching premise: students take a year off between their high school graduation and their college entry, using the break to pursue things like travel, volunteerism, work/internship opportunities, language/cultural studies and other things that help them discover their passions and vocations and make them better members of society. England’s Prince William did it, as did his wife Catherine Middleton before they were married. This past year, President Obama’s eldest daughter Malia took a gap year before she entered Harvard, working for a film production company and traveling. They started as a European thing, and have been slowly making their way into the American educational system since the early 2000s.

While I wholeheartedly believe a gap year is a good thing for many students, my issue with the concept is its brevity. We should not be encouraging people to take a gap year when they’re students only to return to school and head off to the beige monotony of corporate life as if their gap year was their one shining chance to chase dreams and dive into the world. Instead, we should be encouraging them (and people of all ages!) to  build a GAP LIFE – one that fosters continuous self-improvement, community involvement, and passionate engagement well beyond a mere 365 days.

In my quest for a Great New YEAY!, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gap Life – what it is, how you get it, and most importantly, how to ensure you keep it. So class of 2017 (and every year that comes after), here’s what I’ve come up with:

Self Assess Often

This is the cornerstone. There is no path that doesn’t first have a start, and the path of a Gap Life starts with honest, holistic self-assessment. To use process operations MBA-speak, your can’t map Future State without first mapping Current State. Frequent self-assessments also provide the perspective needed to appreciate progress you’ve made towards Gap Life goals, and to better understand what goals need your attention in the future.

Some questions to get you headed in the right direction:

  • What have I always wanted to learn?
  • What have I always wanted to do?
  • What makes me the happiest?
  • What makes me the unhappiest?
  • What causes mean the most to me?
  • What did I start doing, never finished, but wished I had?
  • Where have I never been but always wanted to go?
  • Is there a hobby I’ve always wanted to explore further?
  • Is there a professional skill I’d like to attain?
  • What was the last book or magazine article I read that widened my worldview or caused me to think differently?
  • What amenities/services/experiences do I enjoy in other communities that my community is missing?
  • What skills do I have that I might use to help people or organizations in my community?
  • What organizations in my community are doing things I believe in or support?
  • If I could intern or job shadow at any company, what would it be and why?
  • What am I currently doing to improve my health?
  • What am I currently doing to provide myself with balance?

These are all questions I’ve asked myself, and they’ve led me in interesting directions on my own Gap Life experience. By asking these questions at intervals, you can ensure you continue to pursue aspects of your own Gap Life that bring you fulfillment.

Chase Improvement

Improvement doesn’t come overnight. It happens gradually, iteratively.  Borrowing another business operations term from the Japanese, you should be searching out opportunities to kaizen (continuously improve) your life. By looking for continuous improvement opportunities, you reinforce to yourself that progress is always possible and growth never ends – two power life lessons.

In my own journey, I started with a goal to read more. To support that goal, I started a centralized list of books I wanted to read. Suddenly, I had more books on my list than time to read. So I started looking for ways to optimize my schedule, integrating time management practices into it in ways that created the reading time I wanted. When I was able to accomplish that, I thought I should quantify my reading goal in more finite terms, and My Year of Reading Dangerously was born. None of this would have been possible without my continual quest for improvement in processes that helped me reach my goals. The iterations became puzzles, each a new, small problem to solve that kept me engaged in my original goal.

Build Skills

After completing my MBA, the last thing I wanted was more coursework. But I found my MBA classes and client work both challenged me to explore topics and develop skills that would augment or expand my current capabilities (see previous note about Current State mapping). So, like with my reading goal, I started working on skills I thought interesting, utilizing a variety of resources (books, websites, workshops, classes, tutoring, etc) to find the right fit for my needs.

I believe the key to maintaining a Gap Life perspective on skill building is to realize all skills aren’t related to a job or career path. Say you’re interested in travel. What Gap Life skills are going to enable you to take the greatest advantage of travel opportunities in the future? Maybe you want to explore National Parks in the US. Then learning to camp or do wilderness orientation at a local REI or other sports store might be an idea. Maybe you want to hike. One of the most popular hiking paths in the world is the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, the medieval pilgrimage route to the tomb of the Catholic St. James. Since the hike crosses northern Spain, learning Spanish would be a great Gap Life skill to deepen your appreciation of and readiness for a trip of that magnitude. Tapping into your passions and then making concrete steps preparing you for them is the mark of a meaningful, engaged Gap Life.

Give Back

In a world populated by television personalities who are famous just for being famous and whose claim to fame lies in shameless self-promotion, it can be difficult to turn your focus outward, from self to community. But Gap Lifers are uniquely qualified to be community leaders, specifically because of the skill sets, focus, and vision they’ve cultivated while pursuing their Gap Life. They are planners, doers, connectors and communicators. Their focus is on the path ahead, and they’re unafraid of stumbles and diversions that pathway might hold because they’re practiced at iterative thinking and on-the-fly problem solving. What better people to lead communities, particularly those with diverse issues and systemic problems?

The truth of community involvement lies in the engagement. The very idea of engagement is mutuality – in order to engage, one must have something or someone with which to interact. By giving of their skills and expertise, Gap Lifers stand to get amazing things in return –  gratitude from others, the chance to watch others grow and develop, and the satisfaction that comes from being a force for positive change in the world. And there are few things more valuable than that.

So encourage the graduates around you to chase their dreams and begin living their Gap Life. But don’t forget to lead by example!