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Take a Grown-Up Gap Year: Part 1

By  June 19, 2009

A year of travelling with purpose is a great way to get out of a work rut. Expert Susan Griffith offers tips to help you prepare for taking time off from your everyday life.

Most of us sail along on our normal work-a-day and domestic course more or less contentedly. But then something happens that throws us off-course and makes us wonder where the meaning lies in our ordinary routines. Do we really want to spend the foreseeable future in traffic jams, in supermarkets, in boring meetings placating irate bosses? When was the last time we gasped with amazement at some new sight or laughed out loud at some absurdity?

Inside many of your colleagues lurks a secret Indiana Jones longing for a challenge.

Deciding to take off for an extended period is never easy. That is because resolving to do it takes you about 80 percent of the way towards actually doing it. Some experience a 'Road to Damascus' revelation when they feel a sudden compulsion to escape their daily confines to explore the world. Perhaps some event reminds them of their mortality, or they suddenly realize that the trappings of success are not the same as success. Others spend years toying with the idea, taking a few tentative steps before they finally discover the wherewithal to carry through the idea to pursue their dream.

Turning dreams into reality takes hard work. The trick is to keep alive the buzz of excitement at the prospect of your radical sabbatical while addressing the practical considerations one at a time. Start by making the decision that will keep you inspired as you sort out the more mundane stuff later: what to do and where to go. Trek in the Himalayas? Backpack your way round the Antipodes? Tag turtles in Costa Rica? Study art in Italy? Teach in Zanzibar? As you daydream in front of your computer, guidebook or back issues of Verge, ideas will swill around and a few will eventually float to the top. With the help of detailed maps and guidebooks you can imaginatively transport yourself to a Rio beach, Khmer temple or African savannah. If you are planning a solo gap year, you can indulge your travel fantasies; if with a partner or friend, you may have to negotiate over the itinerary.

Negotiating time off with the boss may be less fun, but procrastination is the thief of time. Timing is critical, since no boss will be receptive to a request at short notice, especially if you are a key player in an ongoing project. Propose to take your break during a quiet period at work. Tee up a colleague prepared to cover your role while you're away. The trick is to persuade the boss that the break will benefit both of you-his or her employee will come back reenergized, motivated, more creative, with enhanced skills (like unflappability). Your employer's main anxiety will be that you will never return, so solemnly promise not to vanish forever-assuming you mean it. Once away, it is polite to make occasional contact, and to show interest in what is going on back at work.

Friends and family will by turns be envious and disapproving, sometimes both at the same time. A few will raise objections on grounds of risk to career, risk to health, expense and general irresponsibility. People will gush and say how they wish they could do it too, while all the while looking at you as though you belong in a mental institution. Do not be deterred. Usually the envy wins ou—inside many of your colleagues lurks a secret Indiana Jones longing for a challenge, but they are too cowardly to go for it.

Once the time off is sorted, all you need is the money. Draw up a realistic budget based on your available funds, travelling tastes and destinations. If you are joining a voluntary project, which will almost certainly involve substantial costs, consider fundraising activities like a daft sponsored dare or organizing a concert, quiz night, wine tasting or auction of promises. If this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, consider borrowing money. The easiest source of money for property owners is rent from tenants. Renting out your home can go a long way to covering your costs in Ghana or Cambodia.

As your gap year draws to a close, as it inevitably must, concerns may assail you about making the adjustment back to your workaday life. Home pleasures will of course be keenly anticipated-pancakes and maple syrup, cool clean sheets, safe tap water, drivers who don't lean on their horns-and many other compensations should help to alleviate the post-travel blues. Returning to work after a career break, particularly one lasting as long as a year, is bound to be challenging. Will you be greeted as a conquering hero (unlikely) or given a hostile reception (equally unlikely)? On your return you may even be a little irritated to see how well others have coped in your absence. Former routines and a sense of discipline will have to be revived and tolerated after a period of blissful freedom from rigid timetables.

According to the 19th century aphorist and Harvard professor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, "A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions." Some may have discovered a passion for ocean-sailing during their year out; others will have fallen under the spell of Paris, Sydney or the tropics. In some cases, the changes which a gap year has brought about may be more than just psychological: bachelors may have found partners, office workers their vocation, idealists their cause.

Mark Twain is often quoted by those who champion taking time out to travel with purpose, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Read more of Susan Griffith's expert advice on taking a gap year in Take a Grown-Up Gap Year: Part 2

Susan Griffith is the author of Gap Years for Grown-ups published by Vacation-Work Publications/Crimson Publishing in the UK (www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk).


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Published in Volunteer Abroad
Susan Griffith

Susan Griffith is the time-honored guru of the gap year. Author of numerous travel bibles includingWork Your Way Around the World and Gap Years for Grown-ups, Griffith is an expert in the areas of working and volunteering abroad. From finding work selling ice cream in Cape Town to working as a film extra in Bangkok, Griffith knows the tips and tricks to making travellers’ dreams a reality. 

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