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Everything I Learned From Taking A Gap Year That Wasn’t At All What I Expected It To Be

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day I left my corporate job and entered into self-employment. Recently, I’ve started calling this period a “gap year” instead. Sure, I did some independent work during my time off, but I wasn’t exactly self-employed by the textbook definition. I spent half the year working myself to the bone, only to realize I’d put myself in a worse position than when I had a full-time job. And for the other half, well, I didn’t work much. At exactly the one-year mark, I’m back at a crossroads again.

One Year Ago

I vividly remember the months leading up to my resignation. I told my manager I wanted to leave, and she tried to talk me down. She asked me to consider alternatives within the company. Alright, I’ll give it a go, I thought. I went to HR and asked for a transfer.

Over the course of four years at my company, I had become increasingly unsatisfied with my work. Thoughts crossed my mind of things I prefer to be doing instead. I’d daydream about being a financial analyst in an investment bank or a business strategist consulting top-management on important decisions. At the time, I thought those were pretty glamorous jobs in my field. I caught myself in those moments thinking, Wouldn’t it be great if I could use all this knowledge that I’ve learned, all these ideas that I have in a real-world business environment?

The opportunity finally presented itself: “Where would you like to be placed in the company?” Here it was, my chance to do the thing I said I wanted. Interview arrangements were made with department heads in investment banking and corporate strategy. I went into them with nervous excitement. One of these was going to be the right fit. But I came away from those interviews with a sinking feeling in my gut. Why?

I realized what I thought I wanted deep down was something I didn’t really want at all.

A terrifying question followed that realization, “What do you really want?” A year on, and I’m finding myself asking that same question again.

The Instruction Manual

Growing up, society convinced me that there’s a default instruction manual that everyone follows, and if I didn’t follow it, I wouldn’t be successful or happy. You know the one: go to school, get good grades, get into university, take up a degree that has good career prospects, find a stable job in a good company, find a spouse, buy a house, settle down, have children, and work until you retire. I followed these instructions up until a year ago and yet, I wasn’t happy. I was so afraid because I didn’t know how to be happy with the instructions given to me. This fear was debilitating, to say the least.

I’m fully aware that I’m in a privileged position. Many can’t even afford to quit their jobs — those jobs are the only options they have. Why would I give up something a lot of other people wanted? I put myself through a form of mental gymnastics to convince myself that it was all in my head. Be grateful, people say, while I struggled, trying and failing to be happy. For a long time, I couldn’t even take the leap to leave my company. What was going to happen if I did say “Screw the instructions” and tore it up like an IKEA manual? What if I still couldn’t find a way to be happy?

I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a familiar sentiment echoing through my generation. Y’know, millennials. Just look at the thousands upon thousands of thinkpieces dissecting the millennial brain, trying to figure us out or better yet accusing us of being whiny self-absorbed children. But if a generation persistently shows similar signs of unhappiness, maybe, just maybe there’s something wrong with the instructions given to us. The question then becomes, what are the new instructions? I spent the last year grappling with this. I left my job with no contingency plan, and I tried my best to figure out a path with no instructions.

The Gap Year

Since I started my “real job,” I saved consistently. More often than not, I had a positive balance at the end of every month. Looking back on it, I definitely had (and still have) an unhealthy attachment to money. This unhealthy attachment came in handy when I managed to build enough savings to last a full year of unemployment. The comfort of knowing I have a fall back if shit hit the fan gave me the courage to take a break.

The break didn’t last very long.

Time for Exploration

As January came around, I found myself in a busy spot. I got to do things that were beyond my comfort zone. I was excited, the nerd in me loved a steep learning curve. Having almost no background in management before, I found that I really enjoyed being in control, making decisions and running things. I quickly learned how to set up my own company and manage its finances. I wanted to do all sorts of things; make content, write, teach, consult, do this and that. For six months, I worked on multiple projects simultaneously. I helped a small business set up their operations and managed their bookkeeping, I created social media content for several companies, and I taught Math. I did anything and everything that was thrown my way. Grabbing every single opportunity because I was so hyped to explore different fields to see if one of them would stick.

But instead of finding happiness in exploration, I found myself unhappy yet again. Somewhere in the midst of trying to discover the kind of work I can be passionate about, I stretched myself too thin. There were days where I was beyond exhausted. What little personal time I had, I spent it either sleeping or having a mental breakdown. My mental health deteriorated, and my mood swings became more pronounced. I became increasingly worried about sustaining my income level when I shouldn’t have. Hello, remember those savings?

All this while struggling to study for the CFA exam — a certificate that I spent the last four years of my life trying to attain. I still question why I’m pursuing it. When exam day rolled around, I knew I was ill-prepared for it because I spent too much time working or being too anxious to study.

Knowing My Limit

One of my biggest revelations this past year was learning what my limits were because I pushed myself way past them. It’s hard to stop yourself when you’re on a roll. I got so caught up trying to do too much that I forgot I was supposed to take this time to figure shit out. It wasn’t until a friend talked some sense into me right after one of my panic attacks that I took a break. Again. I needed to step back and question everything I was doing at that point; I needed to put my foot down. And somehow, putting my foot down translated into booking a flight to Europe for six weeks.

Extended Holiday

I could harp on about my trip to Europe — believe me, I’ve done it countless times to anyone who’d listen. Because finally, I took the time to just be. I didn’t know I carried around so much worry that it physically weighed on me. A whole new perspective opened up to me when that weight was replaced by a 40kg backpack. It was almost freeing.

During my extended holiday, I started cultivating habits that in turn tweaked my mindset. Ironically, these are habits that I should have cultivated at work. What were they?

  1. Learning to let things go: Being on a holiday didn’t give me much time to sulk about the little mishaps I made. I learned quickly from my mistakes and moved on.
  2. Gaining confidence: As the weeks progressed, I became more confident — the type of confidence I didn’t think I had in me. It’s the type of confidence that comes from learning to be self-reliant while traveling alone. Because I’m forced to make decisions without any help, I started to trust my abilities more.
  3. Seeking help: If I needed help I became more comfortable asking for it. Throughout life, I kept my guard up with people but as I traveled it took a different sort of courage to seek out help and trust strangers.

I got a glimpse into ways of life that seemed unachievable to me. Work-life balance is such a foreign concept where I live in Malaysia, and yet, I saw people living contently with said balance in Europe. I came away from that experience with new eyes, and with more questions about what it means to work, have a career and be happy.

Where It Leaves Me

I think I figured out a new instruction manual that works for me: How does this thing/activity/work benefit my overall wellbeing?

If anything, this gap year taught me that finding fulfillment is an ongoing process. There is no one place or thing that holds the answer to my happiness. Every time I discover new information, it challenges me to question, reorient myself, and make tough decisions. The shifting unpredictable nature of my gap year was nothing short of revelatory.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m at a crossroads yet again. Truth be told, some days I crave the structure and routine of a corporate environment. Part of me wants to jump back into a full-time job with the renewed enthusiasm I have now. The other part wants to continue this self-employment journey, to establish some sort of footing in an entrepreneurial role. And then there’s a smaller, albeit vocal, part that wants to go back to school (what a nerd). I have to laugh a little because it looks like my path isn’t all that much clearer than it was a year ago.

But this much I can say with certainty: I don’t regret taking the leap into the unknown a year ago. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have a much better understanding of my self and what I’m capable of. In hindsight, I’ve grown and progressed more this past year than I did when working full-time. And really, isn’t that an achievement in its own right?

Nicole is a writer and a self-proclaimed funemployed person based in Southeast Asia. She used to work in the financial services industry, where she gained most of her knowledge on finance, investing and money management. She writes about her continued journey navigating career advancement, personal finance, self-development, and adulthood at imfunemployed.com.

Image via Unsplash

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