Gap Year

10 Ways a Gap Year Can Help You Figure Out Your Career

Learn ways in which taking a year off from traditional work or studies to focus on your personal growth can actually help you make more informed career decisions.

Belinda Birchall

Growing up in New Zealand, Belinda decided that she wanted to see a little more of the world around her - living in the Middle East for a few years...

If anyone ever tells you that deciding your future career is easy, ignore them. It isn’t.

There may be a small number of people that wake up one day and know exactly what they want to do, but they are few and far between. My husband is one of them. He decided, at age 15, to train to become an airline pilot. He then went and did exactly that and is now an airline pilot. He is one of the lucky ones. Identifying a career path, and figuring out how to achieve it, ranks pretty highly on the list of the most stressful life decisions you will face.

Taking a gap year is one of the best ways to figure out what you want to do for a job. Actually, it may be the best way. No matter why you want to take a gap year, there is no reason you can’t use a gap year to consider your future. If you can combine this with traveling the world or immersing yourself in new cultures, even better. Can you think of a more ideal setting to contemplate your contribution to the world -- all while meeting new people, visiting new places, and pursuing new horizons?

If you are on the fence about the benefits of a gap year and how these can help you figure out your career path, read on. There are many crucial ways that a year traveling the world can help you gain a sense of direction and - most importantly - develop the skills you need to succeed in the workplace.

1. You'll Develop Soft Skills in a Challenging & Dynamic Setting, Differentiating You From Your Peers

That sounds like a loaded claim. But you know what? Coping with other cultures, and dealing with the inevitable challenges associated with travel, can be challenging. Developing soft skills, such as communication, motivation, leadership, and problem solving, will set you apart.

Put yourself in the perspective of a Hiring Manager. Who do you think will be a more resilient hire - the person who worked at their local corner store or office, or someone that has dealt with a heated situation with a Passport Officer in Tanzania, or negotiated with a tour guide in Bangkok while hundreds of tuk-tuks went buzzing past?

2. You'll Have the Opportunity to Try Different Jobs and Learn What Motivates You

Instead of tying yourself into a career path, a gap year will let you try out lots of different roles. Allowing yourself the freedom to try new and different jobs can be a liberating experience -- and will teach you a lot about yourself and what you love to do for work.

Take advantage of international volunteering opportunities, along with internships -- paid and unpaid -- to expose yourself to roles that you may never have dreamed of trying. Finding out what you are passionate about is one of the best parts of taking a gap year, and you’ll never regret taking the opportunity to try new things.

3. You’ll Meet Amazing People, Build Lifelong Friendships, & Make Professional Connections for Life

One of the most rewarding parts of travel is meeting new people. If you can combine this with developing meaningful professional relationships, it makes traveling even more worthwhile.

I’ve met people from all over the world, many of whom I call friends, who I now engage with professionally. Having a network of international connections has its perks. Not only when you need a couch to crash on, but also as you figure out your career when you return home and need to make a connection with a cool company or get an introduction to the person who might give you your next role.

4. You'll Have Time to Take Stock of Your Career and Goals

I speak from experience. I moved to Dubai in February 2017. This move took me away from a high-powered Government role in investment and social policy in New Zealand. I am lucky that, at the age of 30, I got to take the time to think about what was important to me in my career.

Think about how a gap year might help you explore options you otherwise may never have been exposed to. Travelling opens up a multitude of freelance and short-term opportunities - maybe you could explore writing, graphic or web design, or any one of many careers that offer flexible and remote work. The possibilities are endless!

5. You'll Increase Your Emotional Intelligence by Interacting With Different People & Cultures

Emotional intelligence (EQ) - the ability to perceive, understand and manage your feelings and emotions - impacts how you behave and navigate social situations and make decisions. In 2011, one in three hiring managers rated EQ as the most crucial factor when recruiting (source).

While most people naturally develop EQ in social situations, these skills come to fruition when you combine them with traveling overseas. Many people develop a sense of empathy, understanding, and tolerance from their time abroad. and there are even gap year opportunities that specialize in wellness if you want to kick it up a notch. As well as making you a well-rounded and caring person, these skills contribute to a strong sense of EQ, and that will help you in your future career.

6. You'll be Challenged to Seize Opportunities to Develop Your Technical Skills

There are aspects of travel that can be technically difficult. Maybe you’ve traversed an ice field or scaled a rock wall, coordinated a group tour for your friends through an unknown country, or cooked a meal for 30 hungry volunteers at a work camp. These tasks develop your technical skills and help you figure out where your true passion lies.

Maybe you can qualify to become a mountain guide, work as a travel consultant or start your own catering business. A revelation about what inspires you might be less of a lightning strike and more of a gradual realization of what satisfies you when you interact with -- and help -- other people.

7. You Can Learn What Has Worked for Others -- & What Hasn't

Considering the thoughts, opinions, and experiences of a wide range of people is crucial when deciding a career path. While you will obviously have the final say on your future, hearing a wide range of perspectives is always a positive thing.

Traveling will bring you into contact with people with far more diverse backgrounds than you could ever expect to come into contact within your hometown, and everyone you meet will have a story to tell. Absorb these stories -- they will help you figure out not only what is important to others but what is important to you, too.

8. You'll Develop a New Perspective on Your Current Career Path

Sometimes, you need to take a bit of a step back to move forward. This doesn’t mean you stop altogether. It just means you might need to gain a different perspective.

A gap year can provide you the lens through which you can gain clarity over your future study or career path. Relocating yourself can often foster a new perspective on future possibilities. Immersing yourself in a different culture can also help you realize that priorities actually differ across the world and help you gain a more holistic perspective on what is important. All of these effects of a gap year will help you be more successful in choosing your career path.

9. You'll Grow your Maturity & Independence

A gap year provides you the perfect opportunity to prove, to yourself and to others, that you are capable of making it on your own. Some of the best possible attributes for a successful career are being self-reliant and resilient, traits that you will naturally develop by challenging yourself by going overseas.

Developing a sense of independence can also help you disconnect from some of the trappings of modern life (particularly social media) and help you grow as an individual. All that Eat Pray Love stuff, and the many quotes you read about travel helping you to become a better person? They’re actually kind of true -- and they can massively help you choose your next job and plot your career path.

10. You Will Learn What You Don’t Want to Do

You know what? Not every experience in life is amazing. There may be days that you are traveling or volunteering that are downright uncomfortable. You might end up doing work that you find tedious or stressful. There is nothing wrong with this.

Look at each experience as a learning opportunity. If nothing else, that tedious or stressful task helped you work towards becoming the person you want to be -- and figuring out what you don’t want to do with your career and life. Some people spend years toiling in professions they cannot stand. If you can figure it out during a gap year, you’re doing pretty well.

You May Even End Up Back Where You Started

Let’s say you make it through your gap year, but you still have no idea what you want to do. This might feel like a failure -- but it isn't!

If you hadn't taken a gap year, how would you have spent that time? You could have sat at home playing video games in your underpants or worked at a tedious 9-5 job at your parent's office. Or, you could have traveled the world, met amazing people, and went on some great adventures. I can assure you that one of these options will do far more in developing you as a person, and it isn’t the couch! You will walk away with memories that will last a lifetime, developing the skills needed to help ensure future career success.

What are you waiting for? Plan your gap year now and start figuring out your career path. Go Overseas and explore the world. It will be challenging, and tiring, and sometimes a little bit confusing. But I can assure you -- you won't regret it.

This post was originally published in March 2016, and was updated in March 2021.