Gap year. Sabbatical. Career break. Long-term travel. RTW trip.
If you're an American and immediately dismiss the above terms (or worse, don't even know what most mean), then maybe you should read on. For the first 28 years of my life, I thought gap years, sabbaticals, and long-term travel were for Europeans, Australians, or Americans with trust funds. I just chalked it up to a cultural divide that my particular culture didn't partake in.
Fortunately for me, my wife is smarter than I, and after stumbling upon a random blog of an American couple, around our age, who left their jobs to travel the world for a year, we were both intrigued.
Do normal Americans really do this? Is this a realistic possibility for a young couple who has both student loans and credit card debt and is also saving to buy a house?
The answers are yes to both, and doing something crazy like taking a gap year could really benefit Americans in a big way. Here are three reasons why all Americans, no matter the age, would benefit from taking some time off and getting out to explore the world.
We're too stressed
Go to school. Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college. Graduate. Get a job. Buy a house. Work really hard to get up the ladder. Get married and have kids. Bypass things like weekends and spending time with your family and going on vacations in order to advance in your career. Make a lot of money. Watch your kids grow (often from afar). Retire (if you still have any money left in your 401k). Travel and enjoy life (if you're healthy enough to do so).
A bit dramatic? Maybe, but that short paragraph is the reality for many Americans. It's the so-called American Dream. It's what many of us have been taught from a very early age to strive for. When looking at it broken down simplistically like that, though, it doesn't look like any dream that I've had.
The fact of the matter is that we work too hard. Sure, one can take pride in hard work. There's nothing wrong with that. But isn't life also supposed to be enjoyable? I find it hard to believe that the people who work 60, 70, 80 hours a week and never take any time for themselves are actually enjoying life.
A break from routine can be beneficial in so many ways. For the college student who has only known American school systems, a study abroad program will open your eyes to a different way of living and doing things. For a recent college graduate, a gap year trip will help you unwind after years and years of schooling before embarking on the next chapter of your life. For those who have been in the work force for a while, a career break trip will help clear your head and renew your focus - whether that be for your current career or a new one that you will now have the confidence to pursue. For families, what better way to get closer and teach your children about the world than by traveling in it?
Things are different now
What hard work got you in the 1950s and 1960s doesn't really get you the same thing that it does in 2012. If you buy a house, there's no guarantee that the value will keep increasing as it did for the better part of the last fifty years. If you work hard at your job, there's no saying that you will advance, get promoted, make more money, and have a nice nest-egg when you are ready to retire. Not that any of those were absolutes, but they were a lot more common then than they are now.
Times are different, and the last five years have been rough. What worked 20, 30, 40 years ago may not now, so it's probably time to change our priorities. Maybe getting married, having kids, and owning a house in the suburbs isn't want you want out of life. If that's the way you think, there's nothing wrong with that, despite what others may try to convince you. If taking a different life path is what makes you happy, then that's what you should do. No one should ever apologize or feel guilty about being happy or doing what you want with your life.
Traveling internationally will open your eyes
The United States is big. It's pretty awesome, too. We have a lot to offer for travelers. I urge all travelers to see our fine country. But getting out of your comfort zone is a good thing. Seeing and experiencing what the rest of the world has to offer is a wonderful thing - you can learn so much from international travel.
Whether it's taking part in a study abroad program, taking off on a gap year after college, taking a career break in your late-twenties/early thirties, or taking your entire family on a RTW trip, the implications of what you will discover cannot be taken lightly. While I love my country, it's clear that times are changing and we are not the top dog we have been. There are up and coming countries and economies that we can and should learn more about. What better way to learn about those other cultures than by visiting them?
Going against societal norms isn't as difficult as it may sound. The fact is that Americans are behind the rest of the world, arguably in particular when it comes to things like personal happiness. However, happiness is manifested in several ways. For many, having time off to unwind, doing what makes them relaxed and carefree, and having the opportunity to see the world is the key to inner bliss. It's about time we change the trends and do what is going to better our lives.
Photo Credits: jduggan, net_efekt, and Wikimedia.