Aug 10, 2018 | The gap year
As Confucius famously said, choose the job that you love – and you will not need to work for a lifetime. Some time ago, I had a chat with my father, a chess player by profession. He has been doing in chess, in one way or another, for his whole life. Now, when he got retired, he feels especially happy because… he will now have even more time for chess.
What a nice vision; I really hope one day I can be the same happy about my incoming retirement. However, this is all not that simple. My dad was lucky in the sense that he discovered his biggest passion very early on when he was still a primary school kid. Most people are not as lucky. As a matter of fact, the school system (or at least Polish school system), kills a lot of natural talents: knowledge served at schools is standardized and the amount of material you need to learn is so overwhelming that you are becoming a little robot, working days and nights for good grades. There is just no more room in your life to explore the environment around you. And, if you are a successful student, your teachers advise you accordingly. Are you good at math? They will tell you ‘go study math’. Are you good at biology? They will tell you ‘go study biology’. Are you good at physical exercise? They will tell you ‘go join a sports club’. And what if you were a kid who was good at dancing, or at investing money? There are plenty of talents never to be uncovered by a school system. And, if you are a good student, your own diligence will backfire at you as you will never find out about the other possibilities.
What I noticed is that most people lose the remainings of their passion sometime in their twenties. The beginning of studies is a very special period as then, you are fully driven by curiosity, willing to take risks and to act against your fears (I actually realized that while reading ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Murakami). Then, in their thirties, people start pulling back, becoming self-protective, make compromises, work out a comfort zone and settle somewhere.
But I would not like this to happen to me – and this is exactly why I decided to conduct an experiment. Actually, it is a case study as I am experimenting on myself. My contract expired some time ago and I came to the conclusion that it is a great opportunity to actually find out more about myself instead of jumping into a new job straight away. Many things you do during the day are actually just unnecessary habits, or things that you are asked to do and you do not truly want to be doing from the bottom of your heart. Therefore, I asked myself a simple question: imagine that you have enough budget to live life without working, no duties at all, no close family to take care of, no two-body problem. You are one healthy individual who does not need to do absolutely anything, and one year of time. So, what would you do with your time then? You wake up in the morning, and what would you do? Would you go somewhere, or would you stay around? Would you feel insecure and browse for jobs, or would you do things you enjoy doing? Would you watch Hollywood movies, or would you watch self-development movies? Would you chill, or would you work?
I am not done with this experiment just yet, but I can already say that after some time, I figured out quite a lot about myself I had never realized before. And I can genuinely say that I can recommend taking a gap year to anyone who can afford it.
So, this is what I learned so far:
1. Give your intuition a chance to speak
It is hard to listen to what your own intuition is telling you once you need to deal with a range of duties and distractions throughout the day. And, you can only hear its voice once you are in a peaceful state of mind. When your intuition finally switches on, it becomes much easier to notice opportunities that can bring you towards your goals. What I am saying here, sounds pretty obvious but somehow, for the last few years I was running from one task to another, and I was not giving myself enough room to observe what I was doing from the distance.
Now, I can genuinely say that I see clearly that many of the activities I was undertaking, were unnecessary neither for my personal development nor my career. In an example, for a long time, I was stuck in my PhD because my main project had some serious bottlenecks. However hard I tried, I could not solve the problem properly, as the data had some serious limitations. Since I had no feeling of accomplishment, I used to look for other ways to keep my work satisfaction at a certain level: going to conferences (even without a presentation), presenting at seminars, keeping myself visible. However, looking from a perspective, this is not a solution for the problem: the only solution to not having published articles is to publish articles, in one way or another. Also, some activities are just not worth doing, and now that I have more time for thinking about every decision I am taking, I am slowly earning to say ‘no’.
2. Notice that the world is changing fast – to your advantage
Once sitting at home, I realized how fast the world is changing these days – and to my mind, it is a change for the better. Decentralization is a slow process that affects many aspects of living in a society – not only financial markets, arts and funding schemes but also science. A few decades ago, the only way of progressing in academia was becoming a protege of an accomplished researcher who was submitting your work to the journals. Without a protective boss who was willing to promote you, presenting your work to the world was not even possible. Also, if the journals didn’t want your work, it was ending up in the ladder.
These days, science is different. You can form your own circles of influence with other researchers online, and submit your work to online servers at any moment. These manuscripts can go through a public peer review process, and they get an identifier (DOI), which makes them citeable. There are no more boundaries like before, and it is becoming easier than ever to get acknowledged for your work – without relying on anyone’s opinion.
Also, the sense of solitude is sort of gone as you always have a number of people to reach out to, at any moment. Honestly, I was a little bit afraid that working at home would pull my mood down, but since I literally never feel alone, this is not the case and I feel very well.
This personal freedom gives me a sense of safety, as it decreased the influence of luck on career paths. Of course, there are also dark sides to this decentralization process. One caveat is that communication online becomes more and briefer, and this affects working memory. As getting Twitter or Slack notifications, or likes on Facebook gives you these little shots of dopamine during the day, it becomes hard to disconnect from junk talk and focus on one task. I see this problem, so I am trying to overcome it by setting particular slots during the day which can be spent on surfing and chitchatting online.
3. Freedom makes your brain more creative
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias, in which you only use items in a way they are traditionally used – even though in fact, these items might have many other applications. When you ask yourself genuine questions, you might start breaking this bias. One day, I asked myself: if you could only do one thing for the rest of your life, every day, what would that be? And I was surprised to find out that it was neither science, nor entrepreneurship, nor partying, not hiking, not drinking. ‘Dancing’ – came to my mind with a high degree of certainty. Then I thought to myself: then, when do you dance? Well, a few times a year, I use to go to dancing parties at conferences or join friends on Friday night excursions to the clubs… So, why not every day? Because it would take way too much time to find a place to dance, and to commute to that place on a daily basis… But why to find a place? Why not just switch on the music and dance, every day, as the first thing in the morning?
Why not? People conventionally associate dancing with a long evening among other people, with some form of a social event, with a club or a gym hall. And this was the only reason why I was not spending my days doing the thing I adore doing the most. So, for the last few weeks, the first thing I was doing in the mornings was walking into my own garage, putting on the music and dancing like crazy. No need to say that I have been in a very good mood lately.
4. I live in heaven
This is what I was slowly realizing for some time now. The Netherlands is a country of real equity in civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, a free market open to entrepreneurship. And, it is beautiful too. I have just been to the most famous entertainment park in the country, the Efteling, for the first time. I believe that finding a place like this is only possible in the Benelux countries; everything in this park was not only functional and pretty, but it was also carefully planned so that people of all ages can find something for themselves, from 6 to 96 years olds. There is just no ageism in this country. In other countries, e.g. Poland, this is not the case – if a person at the age of 60 enters a club, all the youngsters will immediately run from the place. At the local carnival in the Netherlands however, I have seen parties where everyone dances together and age does not matter at all. If you feel that you are accepted no matter how old you are, you simply feel safe, and this is a very basic human need.
I also realized that I do not need as much travel as before. A few years back, I felt a deep desire to move at least once every few months (or sometimes, even every few weeks). Now, I do not feel that much necessity to relocate over and over again. Is this a development or a regress? You can look at this in multiple ways; on one hand, you become bound to one location this way, but on the other hand, this also increases the amount of personal freedom as you have fewer needs and desires this way. To my mind, this is development but a preference for traveling or settling is, I guess, a personal feature.
5. Goals first
For the last few years, I was running around trying to fulfill expectations from other people, but I did not spend enough time to think about what I wanted for myself in the long run. In the Dutch culture (and I guess also in many other cultures these days), there is a clear focus on cooperation, and thinking about yourself is considered simply selfish. You are under the constant pressure of becoming happy as you are, and open for anything that comes tomorrow. Both these values are good of course, but only to a certain extent – lack of long-term goals can easily cause that you will simply float across life without a plan. There is a saying ‘if you do not have a plan, you will just play a role in someone else’s plan’ – and, there is a lot of truth to that. I also heard once that you should have goals so ambitious that you are literally afraid of them coming true – otherwise, you will not be motivated enough. True that as well. I started thinking of how my perfect life should look like, and came to the idea that maybe, my career track up to this point was going in the wrong direction given my personality and interests. I finally found time to write down on paper what my dream job, as well as dream life, would look like, and this gave me a wonderful feeling that I am making everyday steps towards something rather than floating in the air.
6. I am a science person after all – but only when it is applied science
My PhD turned out to be very theoretical, even though I was surrounded almost solely by applied researchers. At some point, I was feeling so demotivated that I wondered if research is my pair of shoes at all. As a kid, I was very entrepreneurial, and at some point, I started to think that I should do more on the business side than on a research side. But then, when I started a gap year, I noticed that I am still interested in research after all; I am keen on following what the progress in the field is, I still read research papers, and I root for those who are trying really hard to figure out how the human brain works – even though no one pays me for this. The point is that I wasn’t really satisfied with my job before because it was too far from practical applications. After all, I decided to give science one more chance. Could be the last chance though 🙂
7. Much stronger than I thought
I was quite afraid to cut myself off from employment. I presumed that I could get a feeling of awkwardness this way, fall into a depression and land in some limbo, where I no longer have any passion or drive for actual work. It was a justified fear; just a few years back, at the end of my Master studies in Warsaw, Poland, I felt deeply insecure and depressed. Back then, the fact that I had no duties and plans, was bringing me constant anxiety instead of prompting me to work on self-development. So, there was a good reason to think that the same awful state of mind could happen to me again. And, even though the beginnings were not easy, eventually it did NOT happen again. This time, I am making good use of my time and I feel really happy about the fact that I can plan my day on my own.
For more, I realized that it will never get worse than it is from this point: I don’t have a job, I am on my own and I am still doing well. So, somehow I managed to pull my baseline happiness level really high, and I feel stronger than ever.