How a Gap Year Changed My Life, And We Haven’t Even Left Yet
How does life change when you near the end of a chapter? This article explores some surprising consequences of knowing this part of my life will soon be over.
The Common Story of an Overstressed Thirty-Something
Life at 25…
Flash back fifteen years. I’m starting my first job out of college. It’s not that exciting. Designing plans for road resurfacing projects on Illinois state highways. But at least the job is relevant to my degree, which is more than I can say for a lot of my friends at the start of the Great Recession. My plan is to pay down my modest school debt and then move abroad. Maybe I’ll teach English, or join the Peace Corps. I start eyeing a masters in international studies program at a nearby college.
Life at 30…
Fast forward five years. I’m married. No kids. The debt is paid off. Liuan is working on her masters in social sciences.
My job has morphed. I’m now developing software for the same company, which is no longer resurfacing highways, but doing good business studying city-wide sewer systems. I’m way more engrossed in my job than when I was drawing miles of roads with little arrows that said “resurface here” (paraphrased).
Liuan and I work side by side, evenings and weekends. Often we plug in at various coffee shops in downtown Chicago. We are both working with the energy and thrust of a plane taking off and ascending into the clouds.
Life at 35…
Fast forward another five years. The only time I can stay asleep for eight hours is when I crash after at least three nights in a row of terrible sleep. My job is engrossing, but exhausting. It never seems I can put in enough hours. It feels as if I’m barely holding the pieces together.
Our small church is struggling after several major ruptures. They need as much help as I can give. And no matter how much time I agree to, it is never seems to be enough.
We just had our second boy. We feel like we just got out of the woods with our first, who took a full year and a half to sleep through the night. We were hoping our second baby would be the “easy” one. No such luck. He’s even worse. He is colicky and has episodes of intestinal pain. Liuan is haggard from lack of sleep and minding two little boys. Liuan wishes I could do more to help her out.
My oldest son’s attitude seems out of whack, and I worry that my lack of presence is the cause.
I’m riddled with anxiety and exhaustion. I have too many plates spinning in the air that cannot be dropped, ever. Or else. I have no personal time, except for the agonizing hours I lay awake, beyond tired but unable to fall asleep, dreading the day to come. Fear of failure gnaws at my belly and tightens my chest.
A seed planted long ago in my imagination germinates. I want to escape.
The Escape Plan
I know, I know. Break out the tiny violin. White guy with desk job feels stressed and wants more out of life. Maybe has the means to take a year off. Boo hoo.
I’m not trying to say I have it particularly bad. Quite the opposite. I have much to be grateful for. But as Farhad Manjoo put it in a recent New York Times article, “even a dream job is still a job… we have turned our jobs into prisons for our minds and souls. It’s time to break free.” Amen.
The point is that continuously lusting after escape is a signal that something is off. Maybe everyone is asking too much of me, or maybe I’m asking too much of myself. Maybe my values are all wrong. Maybe I got too much lint in my brain’s charging port and need some time to fish it out.
All I can say is that I hate being anxious all the time. I’m tired of insomnia. I’m starving for personal time. My day is filled with life-sucking pursuits.
Stress and burnout are not unique to me. It is the scourge of modernity. And the pandemic has made the condition almost universal.
But the only way I can imagine getting out of my funk is to take a long, life-altering break. Maybe even plant myself somewhere else and start over. Or try my version of “lying flat“, as some are now calling it.
And so Liuan and I decide to do just that. We will each fill a backpack, leave our life indefinitely, and travel far, far away.
Can’t Just Pick Up and Go
Only it’s not that easy. We’re no longer twenty-somethings with nothing to lose. We have a house. A big, quirky old house that requires regular care and attention.
We also need money. We have some savings, which might be enough if it was just the two of us. But now we have three kids. And what about saving for their college educations? Or what about when we return and don’t find a job in the first week?
But the real obstacle is actually none of those concerns. Right around the time we decided to fly away free as birds, our third son was born. He too, was not our “easy” one. (I guess that was too much to ask.) We decided we didn’t want to spend our once-in-a-lifetime retreat doing baby duty. That means waiting until he is at least two or three before we leave.
In the mean time we work on our finances. Finish our estate planning. Make countless modifications to our house to host short term rental guests. Give our family and friends advance notice. I determine to quietly prepare for my departure at work: train people, document things, work out the bugs and stabilize my Frankenstein software creation.
We turn raising our kids into a traveler’s boot camp. Reading them books about other cultures. Having them learn Spanish and Mandarin. Making them walk more to improve their endurance.
Then the COVID pandemic hit. That forced us to set aside our plans yet another year.
Transforming in Place
As we count down to our grand exit—eight months at the time of this writing—I’ve noticed something curious. We’ve managed to take the edge off that ravenous hunger to escape.
It’s not that we don’t want to go. We are not getting cold feet. This thing is happening.
Rather, the burnout that instigated our desire to leave has given way to hope and purpose. Many of the problems we thought wandering the earth would solve turned out to be solvable right here at home.
I sleep better. Liuan and I revived weekly date nights. We spend our evenings eating dinner as a family and putting our kids to bed with reading and songs. Instead of commitments every evening, Liuan and I snuggle on the couch and read a book or learn Portuguese on Duolingo. That is a solid couple of hours of free time each and every day.
Some of that can be attributed to external factors. Our boys all sleep through the night and don’t require constant holding or diaper changes. We hired a nanny to allow Liuan time to develop her writing career. I now have people working under me, and I’m able to share the burden.
But interestingly, the biggest catalyst of attitude change seems to be the expiration date we put on our current life. I don’t mean to be glib about this, but it’s almost like knowing you only have a year to live. It changes your relationships. It clarifies your values. It limits and obscures the future horizon so you lavish more attention on the present.
The rest of this article focuses on two specific ways my life has noticeably improved. These were problems I expected to persist until we took our gap year. But they resolved themselves along the way. Not in a single transfigurative moment. They were gradual; built on so many small decisions and subtle attitude shifts.
I Lost My Ambition, Then My Work Improved
Arguably, the most important change I’ve made over the past few years is my relationship with work. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job creating something. Creativity is in my blood. It’s like getting paid to play while I sip coffee.
But nothing can ever be that simple. I get bent out of shape over silly interpersonal issues and envy other’s success. People who see only black and white and insist that everyone color inside the lines—an overrepresented personality type in my industry—grate on me.
Others get honors and promotions, leaving me wondering if the right people aren’t noticing my accomplishments. Day in and day out, at least half my brain is being consumed by these ruminations, limiting my productivity and fraying the quality of my sleep.
But knowing that you don’t have a future at a place has a way of cleansing your mind of such nonsense. What does it matter if I screw up, or don’t get a promotion?
It’s not that annoyances never crop up anymore. If anything, they’ve increased as my work has become more widely visible (more critics). But I now have a response when anxiety decides to make a visit. I say, “Brother Anxiety, just one more year and it’ll all be over. So just sit in the corner and chill.”
This has had the counterintuitive effect of making me a better employee. Yes that’s right. I stopped caring about my job, and now I’m better at my job. I’m more patient with people. I’m not in such a hurry. I’m more tolerant to others “slowing me down” with their questions or mistakes.
I’m better focused. Since I no longer have a future here, I no longer obsess about raises, or visibility, or what so and so thinks about me. This allows me to just enjoy myself and try to appreciate the few moments I have left. Enjoyment is more conducive to engagement. Happiness more conducive to sleep. Focus, engagement and sleep equal better productivity.
It’s ironic that employers goad their staff to higher output by stirring up competition and envy. Promotions, bonuses, and special recognition are bait to get us to run a little faster on the hamster wheel. But for me, ceasing to care about those things actually removed a mental roadblock to flourishing.
Doing Life My Own Way
Somehow it got lodged deep in my psyche at a young age that it was a sin to march to your own beat. Deciding what you want to do with your time and focusing on your own needs were selfish and self-defeating. Especially when others were calling on you to pitch in. And people were always calling.
I grew up socialized in conservative evangelical Christianity. That shoe never quite fit, and so I sought other expressions of faith in early adulthood. I was particularly drawn to monasticism. I was fascinated by its singularity of purpose and overall extremeness.
But one notion that both religious traditions held in common was that it was mortally dangerous to think for yourself (an oversimplification, maybe, but not too far off the mark). We deceive ourselves. And so we must rely on others, wiser and more mature, to help guide us. We must fill our time so we don’t fall into idle depravity.
And while it is a scientific fact that we do hopelessly deceive ourselves, it can be corrosive to your personhood to unquestioningly outsource your self-worth to some authority figure. After all, those authority figures are prone to self deception too.
Despite my religious background, I was hopelessly prone to free thinking. But what dissonance I felt. Out of fear and obligation I aligned my actions, if not my mind, with the rigors of obedience. That meant giving to all who asked. It meant putting my own exhaustion and need for creative solitude on the back burner while I took on roles ill-suited to my temperament.
Over many years the strain on my well-being took its toll. I limped along in this tortured state, secretly wishing to find an escape hatch.
But eventually a healthier mindset took over. I realized that I am the one responsible for my life and the consequences. It didn’t matter whether I made my decisions from internal motivation or accepted external direction, I was still responsible. And so I eventually made peace with who I was and decided to listen to my own desires.
Deciding to take a life pause is a radical, if blunt, instrument for taking control of your life. It lobotomizes you from your role in society and all the demands that come with it. It’s a hijacking of your own vessel.
But three years to prepare for a gap year is a long time. And I started to ask myself, if I already decided to leave it all and rearrange my life in three years, why not do some rearranging now? Yes, it was difficult and awkward to tell people that relied on me that I would no longer be filling roles that I had previously committed to. But I already crossed that Rubicon when I set a ticking time bomb on my current life.
So, little by little, I started freeing up time. The pandemic provided the coup de grâce.
I sometimes wonder if the outside observer would scoff at the trivial things I choose to do with my time. Right now for example, I’m trying to figure out how to make a floor lamp out of iron water pipes and a Ball mason jar. I’m also finishing up some chess sets made entirely of nuts and bolts.
Several years ago, I would have had no time for little “art” projects like that. I was volunteering. Socializing. Doing good in the world. I would have felt guilty for wasting time on such activities.
But, strange as it may sound to some, that is what gives me meaning. That’s what makes me feel like a free human being, rather than a cog in someone else’s machinery. It also serves as a medium to think and reflect. And while it might look trivial to the outside world, my boys love those little projects. I like to think it fuels their own imagination and creativity.
And anyway, who cares what anyone else thinks?
The End of a Chapter
I thought it would take nothing less than moving to the other side of the planet to reorganize my life. A factory reset. A reincarnation.
But, it turns out that merely deciding to make a change in the future opened me up to make changes in the here and now. Maybe my life needed a thorough Kondo-ing rather than an uprooting.
Furthermore, knowing that it’s all going to end soon, opens me up to appreciate what I have now. It makes me attentive to the aspects of this life I will soon miss.
Even though I should know better, I imagine our gap year as this blissful, problem-free time of unbroken family bonding. It occupies my mind as a kind of afterlife. A sort of heaven on earth. I imagine it as a vaguely wonderful existence replacing my exhausting, convoluted modern life.
But my mind entertains another dark possibility. What if we leave our current circumstances only to discover that the same problems trail us wherever we go? Maybe in addition to preparing financially and logistically, we also need to prepare our souls.
But unlike the “afterlife”, life on the road will also end. There will be an after-afterlife. And what that life entails is yet to be imagined.
So maybe it’s not the end of the story, but the end of a chapter. And each chapter builds on the previous ones. The life I live now, though it will end soon, influences the shape and quality of the life we are about to embark on. Even though our family gap year is intended to be transformative, I am living into the transformation now.