One Big but Surprising Way to Solve Career Confusion

Colin Heinrich
Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music...
Gap years help with career confusion

I'm going to give away this huge secret to dealing with career confusion right from the get-go. It's by taking a gap year. See, recently someone asked Go Overseas if gap years could help with career confusion. The answer is a giant, irrefutable yes.

I was suffering from career confusion, and it was preventing me from really moving forward. I sat in my house for another six months after my last class, simply looking for things to do.

But there are some conditions and you're going to need to put in some effort to make sure you get the most of it. That's why we're not just going to leave you hanging and tell you to take a gap year and figure out your career. In true Go Overseas style, we'll give you some more guidance on how you could use a gap year to help solve career confusion.

What's a Gap Year?

There are a lot of misconceptions in America about what a gap year actually is. Many view it as an extended vacation when really a gap year is an opportunity to do far more than just sitting on the beach.

This isn't exactly true. As Lauren Salisbury defines it in her article, what is a gap year?, it is "a structured period of time when students and mid-career professionals take a break from formal education or their career to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible next steps". It's not a year off, it's a year on.

The fact is that a gap year is a truly transformational experience, and if you leave with the intent on treating it as such, it can form a soft reboot on your motivations, your ambitions, your direction, and your life.

Gap Years Solve Career Confusion by Letting You Reboot

When you're constantly working in the same routine, it's easy to lose sight of possibilities outside of it. One of the best aspects of the gap year is how it can perform a soft reboot on your life, especially if you’re going abroad without any work plans such as specific internships or volunteer opportunities.

Gap years help with career confusion

By literally starting over somewhere new, even if only temporarily, you have a chance to put in new foundations for your life in a way unbiased towards what was previously there. It’s a tabula rasa on which you can build a new life. It's de-stressing and refreshing.

The trick is in realizing that when people refer to the standard leave-college-get-a-job routine as “real life,” they’re fundamentally misrepresenting what life actually is for everybody outside of their own relatively narrow life experience. It may be one avenue for progressing to the grave, but for many people, it’s simply not the right path.

By exploring a different routine, a different path, you might figure out new career options you didn't even know were available or discover something fundamental that you want in your next career move.

Meeting People with Different Backgrounds = New Career Inspiration

Gap years and travel in general will expose you to other lifestyles and give you the chance to evaluate them without the shadow of home weighing in on your decisions. You’ll have a chance to meet the man who left home at 14 and began cleaning dishes in restaurants, growing into a renowned pastry chef before the age of 21.

You’ll meet skydiving instructors, people on working holidays, hostel owners, professional bloggers, videographers, and just plain vagabonds, all of whom are living a lifestyle different from what you may have even considered as possible for yourself, limited in scope as you may be by your home environment.

Maybe it will inspire you to do the same. Maybe it will lead you to an unexpected connection. Either way, making these unexpected and organic friendships and acquaintances will help you think differently about your career path.

It may not happen immediately, and sometimes it’s not a revelation you can force. You simply need to put yourself out there and be open to the experiences being shown to you.

You Can Pick up and Test New Skills

But the previous point doesn’t mean you have to be passive. A gap year is also a time for self-improvement, having free reign to try things you’d never bother with usually. You can pick up or test out new skills, taking a quick look into a new career -- abroad or at home, actually.

gap years and career confusion

Hiking, for example, may be a hobby you’ve always had, but you’ve never considered monetizing it. Abroad, though, you may find courses in wilderness safety, or you may simply see just how much people are willing to pay to get out in nature. If you tug that sweater string, you could see yourself as a professional guide bringing tourists to a glacier in New Zealand.

You could wind up training in scuba, leading to a lucrative career in underwater welding or rescue. Or you could get any number of sports certifications on your gap year. Each experience you have can branch out into an entire forest of new possibilities that you’d never find elsewhere.

Gap years are a time to test out a career path you're thinking of pursuing, without taking the full leap. It's also an opportunity to pick up skills you'll need to make that leap.

You Can Network

No matter what people tell you, employers always have respect for those who've taken time off to travel -- as long as you used that time productively. And while you can build up your skills and find a new vocation while abroad, sometimes the best things you'll accumulate are simply new connections in the same industry (be it your current industry or a new industry).

While abroad, I've had the chance to meet several people who have become hugely influential on my career trajectory. It's simply a matter of putting yourself out there.

A good friend of mine decided to take some time off to travel after college and wound up in Hong Kong. While he was all set to take a job in finance, travel opened his eyes to the possibility of working for a global company. In Hong Kong, he was introduced to several people in the same boat as him, which led to interviews with a logistics firm there. Sure enough, that friend is still working in Hong Kong, never more pleased with his job.

If you need some tips, our professional development expert, Elaina Giolando, has advice on how to network on your gap year.

You Can Evaluate Your Professional Values in a Different Setting

If you live in D.C., you probably feel like politics are hugely important. In San Francisco? They everything's about innovation, tech, and startups. But that's not the case everywhere in the world, and sometimes the cities, people, and atmospheres we surround ourselves with influence our professional decisions.

So get out. Go to another part of the globe or country and reevaluate. Do you really feel passionate about politics? Or was it just the energy of being around so many politically-driven individuals that made you feel that way? Do you miss it? Or are you glad to be out?

This environmental separation could have a huge impact on pushing you back into or away from your current industry if you are feeling on the fence about it.

It Might Take You Right Back to Where You Were

At the end of your gap year (which, by the way, doesn't have to be a full year), you’ll have been through a lot.

how to help career confusion

But while I’ve spent the past 1200 words waxing poetic about how you’re going to discover a new aspect of your personality and unlock your potential and turn into that unicorn you never knew you were, you may pull back up to the airport with little more direction than you left with. That’s okay, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t help. Your gap year also has the potential to reinforce existing professional interests.

When I was on my gap year -- which I took soon after graduating college -- I explored as much as I possibly could, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to be a scuba instructor, or a firefighter, or any of the dozen other experiences I was faced with. Instead, it reinforced my initial career interest. I found that I still wanted to be a writer, and while the kinds of writing I’ve done has shifted, I’ve ultimately rejoined the race exactly where I left off.

There’s a reason kids get recess between classes. If you push yourself to your limits constantly, you’re going to get exasperated with what you’re doing. You could get exasperated if your job was to pet fluffy kittens if you had to do it constantly. Sometimes, we all just need a break. A gap year is good for mental health regardless of the career implications it provides.

Besides, even if you’re coming back to the same role you left, that gap year can still have given you some good. Maybe you didn’t decide to dedicate your life to some other venture, but you probably picked up some useful skills and experiences that look good on a resume, facilitating a little lateral movement from something you felt stuck in, into something that realize you loved all along. You'll feel refreshed, reinvigorated, and might find yourself approaching problems differently.

So ultimately, you may have mixed feelings about your career. You may not know if you're on the right path, or if you should be in your career in the first place. A gap year might not give you an absolute decision, but it will help you choose a direction.

I'm Your Proof That it Works

I graduated college in 2011, but I didn’t leave my college house until the next year. There were a lot of reasons – and sure, a lease was one of them – but what really held me back was the uncertainty I felt about joining the real world. This is natural, of course. Everybody feels a little apprehension whenever they’re on the precipice of the next stage of life.

Gap year abroad

But for me, I think, it was more than that. I had a liberal arts degree in a job climate increasingly hostile towards it. My career thus far had been predicated on internships that sounded interesting beforehand, only to reveal hidden depths and intricacies of the position that pushed me away from something I was so sure I would love.

I was suffering from career confusion, and it was preventing me from really moving forward. I sat in my house for another six months after my last class, simply looking for things to do.

Career confusion is a very real part of today’s world, especially where graduates are finding less and less work in their chosen fields out of college. It’s not just a liberal arts problem. You may be a STEM major, one of the most profitable and in-demand degrees around at the moment, and still struggle not only with finding a job, but finding satisfaction in whatever work comes your way. And yet, the process marches on.

America has always held a system of immediate entry into the workforce. Gap years, ubiquitous elsewhere in the world, have never caught on culturally to the point where it’s expected or, in some cases, even appreciated. And that’s a shame, because I personally have found gap years to be the ultimate panacea for career confusion. It worked for me. Maybe it will work for you.

Photo Credits: Pexels, Raf Prada, Colin Heinrich, Haley Tucker, and Anna Morris.