Taking a Gap Year: My Personal Experience

Image 1. Kings Canyon (Marseglia, 2011).

I spent 18 months in Australia and New Zealand after completing my high school in Germany. I worked in a restaurant, on a farm, on a construction site, and even started an internet marketing business with two other young professionals. I was recently asked whether I regret to have taken a Gap Year as apparently it would slow the career advancement. However, I am 100 percent certain that taking a Gap Year was the best decision I could have made after high school. Although I traveled regularly abroad before the Gap Year, the experience of traveling through faraway countries, meeting likeminded travelers, and constantly facing new situations simply cannot be compared to a standardized two-week long holiday in a resort. Furthermore, I learned valuable insights about life and gained a deeper sense of my own personality while constantly growing along the way. Age does not make you a wise person, experience does and longterm travel will certainly provide this if you allow it.

A Trip of a Life-Time

It would almost be impossible to write down all the illuminating, exhilarating, or sometimes even frightening moments and emotions I experienced during my Gap Year. However, through self-reflection I can tell what personality traits I developed during this time. According to general psychology teachings the personality is strongly influenced by nature. The debate is about the influence of nature versus nurture. How strongly do your genes influence your character compared to your surroundings? Based on my experience, I have the impression that prolonged exposure to different surroundings can influence and even change certain personality traits and so I strongly believe that my Gap Year was of paramount importance regarding my personal development.

Independence

The longer I stayed abroad the more independent I became. I learned to manage my finances, to shop wisely, to cook healthy meals, to wash and iron my clothes, to make new friends, to organize trips, and to find work. Basically I had to learn how to create a new life whenever I moved to a different place. As a result, I realized how easy it can be to make plans and simply adjust them when the circumstances evolve. One becomes flexible through independence. For example, my original plan was to go to Melbourne for half a year and then move to Vancouver for another half year to become an actor. Yes, that’s right. The plan was to improve first my English language skills and then head over to one of the largest film production centers in North America. However, this never happened. Instead, I was captured by Australia; its vastness, vivid nature, and endless new opportunities to experience something new. When I reflect about it, I find it interesting how I had to travel that far away to feel that thrilled.

My journey started in 2010 in Melbourne where I stayed for a month near Fitztroy Street in the suburb St Kilda. That is where I met Marcello Agresta, an Italian outcast, who became my travel companion and one of my best friends. I was lucky because that way not only did I improve my English but also my Italian. The month in Melbourne passed quickly. I met many new people and found out that Australians have a very laid-back lifestyle. As a city, Melbourne is vibrant and artistic, its people are interested in your stories and love to connect with travelers.

After Melbourne I flew to Sydney where I spend four months to work and learn how to surf. I loved surfing and sometimes I still feel the oneness with the ocean that one can experience when riding the waves towards the beach. I loved the city and its summer vibe it derives from the surrounding ocean but I did not plan to stay for too long. My goal was to save as much money as possible and to travel the classic East Coast route from Sydney to Cairns.

Communication

During my Gap Year I had to talk to many different people and there were several incidents where I had to open up and communicate my thoughts and feelings to be understood.

My grandfather recently told me how communication between people creates harmony. He thinks that communication is the opposite of silence, which as a constant creates only an atmosphere of emptiness and should be avoided if appropriate. Based on my experience, I believe that there is some sort of wisdom is his words. However, one cannot be a great communicator without having interests and experiences to derive from. The most open and communicative individuals I have met have traveled a lot and realized that the fear of sharing personal information is often just an illusion. In reality one has not much to loose. The opposite is the case, one can almost only win because the more connected one is, the more opportunities there will be in life. As an illustration, after an university lecture I saw the founder of Goodmapp at a market stand. I was immediately interested in her venture and simply approached her to learn more about the business. I just started Awaken&More and therefore pitched her our business model. We had both a mutual interest in each other’s venture and exchanged contacts. At the end that contact resulted into a client for Awaken&More. What other great opportunities can life offer to someone who is open and communicative?

Confidence and Courage

I did not have professional experience and therefore searched for work in the hospitality industry as I heard from other travelers about potential job opportunities in that field. I was lucky. I was hired on the first day I was looking for work which boosted my confidence and courage. Through this first achievement I learned how much one can achieve just by going out in the world and start seeking opportunities. However, I have taken the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) training, which is a mandatory license for staff serving liquor. Many backpackers do not take it but it helped me to differentiate from other job seekers. I still have the certificate and sometimes I have to smile about it when considering how some nights should have been a good reason for the legal authority to confiscate my license.

I spent four months at the restaurant and developed a deep sense of humility after having worked as a waiter. I swore to myself that whenever meeting people, I would treat them with equal respect regardless from their social status. There is a fine but distinguishable line between confidence and arrogance and it can be measured by the sense of friendliness and respect for other people.

After having earned enough money I organized the East Coast trip with Marcello and two other travel companions. We traveled to Port Macquarie, Byron Bay, Coolangatta, Surfers Paradise, Brisbane, Fraser Island, Airlie Beach, Whitsunday Island, Cairns, and to many more mind-blowing spots in-between. Australia’s East Coast is wild. Enough said.

I also learned that the extreme of confidence, overconfidence, can be potentially harmful. Marcello is a fairly good surfer and at one surfing spot near Tweed Heads he advised me not to enter the sea as only advanced surfers could handle the entry into the water. I did not want to listen to him and my ego wanted to prove him that I am good enough. The cliff blocks almost the whole entry to the water, so one has to wait for the wave to smash against the rocks, then jump in with the board and paddle as fast as possible before the next wave pushes one back against the cliff. I was careful and knew the risks. I studied the wave movements and then jumped in. I paddled as strong as I could. I thought I would make it, but the first wave pushed me back to the rocks. I thought I could try again by paddling stronger, but the next wave came. It pushed me against the rocks and I heard how the fins of my surf board cracked. I started to panic. The next wave hit me and smashed me against the sharp cliff and my feet started to bleed. Plenty more waves arrived. The situation looked dire. Two other surfers saw me me from faraway and came to help but it was dangerous for them as well. I pushed myself on my broken board and then reach out to their hands. Luckily I made it out of the water. I do not know what would have happened if they would not have been there. I learned that one should treat the sea with respect. Nature is always more powerful than any human. The result was a broken board, some little scars, and a shattered ego. However, it was a good lesson because to this date I do not have the desire to prove myself when being challenged. I know my capabilities and to what extend I can stretch my limitations before it can become dangerous. A situational risk is always increased by being overconfident and by involving the ego.

Once we arrived in Cairns we immediately searched for farm work to earn money for our next trips. We came across the National Harvest Guide, published by the Australian Government, which contained all the addresses of Australian farmers. We called a few and eventually found a banana farm that guaranteed us work. Knowing that we would soon receive regular paychecks, we spent a few more weeks in Cairns. I was just 20 and the experience of staying in hostels was a blast. But it was on the farm where the adventure really started. We had no internet connectivity, were surrounded by wild animals and deadly spiders, and occasionally ate crocodile meat. This experience in the wild Outback made me more courageous than anything else I experienced before. We worked there for three months to accumulate enough working days to be eligible for a second Working Holiday visa; the farm payed very well and so we were able to finance our next journey. I will never forget the moment we were leaving the farm and threw our broken shoes on a telephone mast as a sign of ending. At that time we were just looking forward to new experiences but today we often look back and laugh about the good times we had.

Openness

While making holidays one usually stays alone in its own hotel room but while staying at hostels and camping places one will certainly get in touch with other like-minded travelers. One day you are alone, the next day you are surrounded by a bunch of new people that you will later call friends. One learns to be open and blend with other international-minded individuals. Interacting with citizens from different cultures and belief systems is not an obstacle but a valuable and enriching aspect of life. It is inspiring and also the reason why I decided to continue along that international path throughout my undergraduate study program.

After leaving the farm and having earned enough money for our next journeys we went back to Cairns. It was a wild time. Afterwards, I wanted to spend time for myself and therefore traveled without Marcello to the Outback. My goal was to visit Ayers Rock (also called Uluru). What would happen on the way changed me forever.

Determination

I met a new group and together we hired a campervan to travel to Alice Springs. We visited the amazing Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve, Kings Canyon, and then wanted to continue driving to Ayers Rock (also called Uluru). However, on the way we were stopped by a shouting fireman because of a starting bushfire, so we had to turn back the van and change the route but in that moment the motor broke down. In the middle of the biggest bushfire since 2001! We were even mentioned on ABC News.

It was quite hectic from that moment on. The fire came dangerously close. We took most of our things, jumped in some other cars that were stopped by the firemen, and escaped the sky-high bushfires just in time. We then spent two days at the Kings Creek Station but almost ran out of food as the fireman did not give us enough time to take all our stuff out of the van. We were hungry but survived as other campers fortunately gave us food. During that night I could see the fire flickering on the horizon. It was all dark but one could see the fire in its orange and red colors seemingly connecting the land with the night sky. It was scary and beautiful at the same time.

The next morning we were almost evacuated from the camping spot because the fire was about to approach the site. It was crazy, but after some hours the firemen were able to control the spread of the fire and we were allowed to leave. We all thought the van burned down but luckily it was not the case. Nevertheless, two days passed and we had to bring back the van to Alice Springs and skip Ayers Rock. The others offered me to join them to Darwin but I was not interested in going there. I was determined to see Ayers Rock as I did not know whether I will have another opportunity to see it. So I went to a hostel in Alice Springs and after researching all the available options, I decided to take a guided tour to see Ayers Rock. It is worth a visit and a great experience to feel the vibrance of the place. The lesson here is that it does not matter what other people do, be determined about what you want to do and try the best to realize it.

Gratitude

Backpacking is usually associated with a very uncomfortable lifestyle that does not include daily showers but it is not true for Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps for more remote places. Nevertheless, I had some uncomfortable moments as well and I am very grateful for the high living standard I am experiencing in Europe. In general, I believe that Europe provides many opportunities and that one can achieve a life of abundance when being healthy, self-aware, independent, responsible, positive-minded, confident, open, curious, and ambitious.

Curiosity

After Alice Springs I traveled to Adelaide and from there back to Sydney. I still had a lot of money available and therefore booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand. I remember Marcello asking me to stay in Australia and go with him back to Cairns where we met a tall ship owner. That guy wanted to hire us as crew members and sail to Fiji Islands but my gut feeling did not trust him and I am often better off with listening to my intuition.

I arrived in Auckland and booked the famous Kiwi Experience that brought us to major tourist attractions on the North and South Island. I spent most of my money on white water rafting, skydiving, ice climbing, and bungy jumping. It was a great experience and I met many interesting people with whom I still have contact. When I arrived back in Auckland, I met two Americans with whom I started an internet marketing business. It was fun launching an organization and learn about business. I remember this as the first moment I felt a strong curiosity for business. I think when one starts to develop an unprecedented curiosity for a subject, then it is a pretty good sign of having found its passion.

The more I learned about business, the more I understood how the world works. Finally it clicked. I wanted to go back to Europe and study business in an international environment. After applying to multiple universities, I was very happy when I received the admission letter for studying International Business and Management at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. It is a four year long undergraduate program, including a specialization, an exchange semester, an internship, and an opportunity to write the final dissertation with a company. I followed lots of extra-curricular activities as well because I am very curious and passionated about business and management.

There are many people who work just because to earn money and not because they are genuinely curious about their work. But what kind of life is it to work on something one is not passionate about? I believe that a life worth living is in resonance with its values, interests, and goals. Of course, one does not have to be passionate all the time and for some people passion can be many little things. However, one should try to avoid to spending most of its time working on something one does not like.

Conclusion

I was fortunate enough to have experienced a Gap Year that made me more independent, confident, open, determined, and curious. This helped me to successfully complete my study program and set the path not only for a successful career but for a successful life. Thinking to take a Gap Year and have questions? Leave a comment with a question and I will be happy to answer you.

References

Claudio Marseglia. (September 27, 2011). Kings Canyon.

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