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What do you want to do when you grow up? It has become somewhat a meme of a question because of how often it is posed to kids, adolescents, and teenagers. Our answers are generally very likely influenced by the occupation of family members, and role models. It is a totally reasonable heuristic, but where things can become awry when you act on these low-hanging answers. Especially as our self-image and identity matures, it may conflict with path you set for yourself when you were 14.
The common example, and the one I will continually refer back to, is University. Students lock themselves into a course of study, and hope for the best. We often forget that these institutions have notorious drop-out rates, dissatisfied students, and regretful graduates. Not enough people take time away from the University context, an essential ingredient for evaluating whether the path they are on is in fact in still in alignment with their what they want for themselves.
I can trace back the best, and most important, thinking I have done to three distinct periods in my life. They were important because they heavily shaped thinking and behaviours of the next few years of my life. The first was the couple of months after summer ended in Year 11; the second was a three month span where I interned in Indonesia after my second year of University; the third is right now, the five-month-so-far of my gap year. The common property across the three periods is that they were “transitory” periods. In each, I had no goal driving me other than to enjoy living every day of my life. This is in stark contrast to the period between these junctures where I had a medium or long term goal driving my day-to-day behaviour.
3x I took a break from the grind
In those periods, it is too easy to focus on being productive and accomplishing the next thing without taking a step back to evaluate whether 1. you enjoy are still enjoying what you are doing and 2. it still fits with your life’s priorities. One part of being human is that we evolve: our feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and circumstances. The difficult thing to change is your lifestyle, especially when had previously set a life direction and are focussed on being productive towards it.
In the first period, I had just decided to quit Athletics after 5 years. My decision to quit was motivated by the increasing pressures of school and realising that I probably wouldn’t have made it professionally. The ensuing months after that final season, I didn’t really have any goals. Athletics had consumed most of my thinking and life outside of school. I began reading and listening to podcasts. I got involved in more recreational pastimes through school and actively tried to make new friends. My focus shifted to just enjoying everyday.
From this new focus emerged inspiration for a new direction in my life, namely to concentrate on school and get into a good University. The nice thing was that it led me to be as well-rounded as possible. Doing well academically is expected, it encouraged me to join community groups and play an active role in it. It represented a stepping stone, a sort of signal that you are on the best possible track you can be. I reflect my thinking now and just think it to be so naïve. It nonetheless, shaped the next five years of my life, which I operated with a lucid clarity of purpose.
In the second period, I had essentially three months to kickback. The internship I took so that I could get a taste of what professional working life was like. The first two years of University, I stayed on the path with the aforementioned direction cemented in Year 11. My academic performance was the best it had ever been and I was actively involved in community projects. I was “on track” for a “good” job. That summer opened my eyes to how soul-draining corporate work can be. I quickly became disillusioned this path I put myself on, my 10-weeks of interning became a daily struggle to get through the day. It forced me to reset my expectations, and consider a new direction.
My method of getting to that new direction was just to enjoy life outside of work e.g. hanging out with family and work friends. It was from these new friendships that a new direction emerged, granted it was a lot fuzzier. I had an interest in entrepreneurship, and I acted on it in high school but not so much in University at that point. It was at that point where I actively decided to lean in on this interest, and develop my entrepreneurial capability. Over the next few years, this manifest itself my joining of a project team designing a satellite, starting an online magazine, co-founding a mastermind group, and internship at a tech company. My thinking from that summer in Jakarta, again, gifted me a lucid clarity of purpose which made jumping on the aforementioned opportunities easy.
A gap year during Covid-19
In the third, I travelled (until Covid-19 happened), and now I am spending my days reading and writing. I wasn’t unhappy with where my previous direction took me, but when it came to making a choice of applying for jobs and a gap year, my gut and heart said gap year. At the time I am writing this (May 17, 2020) that is where I am at. It wasn’t until about four months in that I made a breakthrough in crafting a new direction, a new path to take. The focus is less on career, and more about living intentionally. I have changed my habits to align with this new direction, and am in the progress of integrating new ones.
In youth, you could argue, all your time is well-spent. Most experiences are formative and become the bedrock on which your identity is built. You learning new things, connecting new ideas with old, making new friends. As your perspective matures, and your identity solidifies, we need to remember to take the time to evaluate whether the path we set ourselves on when we are 15, 18, 21, 25 is still in alignment with the latest model you have of yourself. Not doing so inevitably leads to dissatisfaction, regret, and missed opportunities.