Advice on Taking a Gap Year

I recently took a gap year to work on neurotechnology research. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life; I have clarity of my long-term purpose, a community that I can rely on, and an understanding of the world and my position within it.

Having reached the end of my year off, I put together this list of advice for other young people to have similarly meaningful experiences. If some of it’s unclear now, I suspect that you’ll come to better understand my reasoning throughout your gap year:

Note: I spent most of my gap year in San Francisco working in tech. Some of this advice may feel more oriented toward that specific audience/experience.

Everyone struggles at some point

This seems intuitive, but it’s rarely ever talked about. Although gap years are very transformative, they’re initially quite tricky to navigate. Whether it’s struggling to find community, questioning whether you care about what you’re working on, or wishing you were in college, everyone experiences a tough time at some point. You’re not alone; it’s helpful to meet other people on a gap year to work through these mental barriers.

Everyday can feel like Christmas

Somebody recently asked me if every day feels like Christmas; waking up every morning, opening presents, and having zero obligations. It can feel like this only if you let it.

Without school (unless you’re doing an internship or working full-time), you’re not held accountable to specific tasks. You can binge Netflix or play video games all day without consequence.

You’ll naturally have days like this, but it’s dangerous if this becomes your entire gap year. If you intend to make progress towards some set of goals, you’ll need to create structure for yourself. It initially requires high activation energy to become consistent; whether that’s blocking off time in your calendar or only socializing on the weekends. Without dedication, you risk falling into a negative feedback loop which will make the entire year seem like a waste of time.

Don't live at home

Moving out to San Francisco made me significantly more productive. When you live at home, the time you wake up, have meals, or what you’re doing that day (chores, visiting family, etc.) are, in some part, dictated by others. Living alone gives you complete control of everything that previously seemed trivial.

You’ll be responsible for things you didn’t pay much attention to before: paying rent, buying groceries, and making time to call long-distance friends and family.

If you decide to travel, you’ll gain a greater perspective on global communities. It might also help you decide where to spend parts of your life. I hopped around between San Francisco, NYC, London, and a couple other major cities with vastly different cultures. Ultimately, I decided to spend most of my time in San Francisco because I enjoy the people and conversations here.

A gap year can be lonely, but it gets better

Depending on where you move, you’ll likely be surrounded by adults for a while. Even if you know other students on a gap year, there are usually limited months where your existence overlaps in the same city. If you don’t actively seek out communities of young people, it will become lonely very, very fast.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I often questioned why I felt lonely despite being surrounded by so many people. In truth, it’s hard to befriend adults the same way you do teenagers. It’s generally challenging to find common ground outside of work, and you’ll find that many relationships transition from friend to mentor. Finding people in your age group is especially difficult in cities like San Francisco, where the average population is graduated engineers and exited founders.

What makes this experience special is that it’s likely your first time having to “seek out” people your age. Growing up, your friendships are primarily dictated by geographical region; your neighborhood friends follow you from elementary to high school. Even if you move out of state for college, the general population is still your age.

One of the major upsides of finding community is that you gain clarity on the types of people you enjoy being around. This makes it easier to recognize people you want to work with, live with, etc.

A list of effective ways I’ve found community:

Pay attention to the people around you

When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived in a co-living house of founders, researchers, and engineers. Meeting so many people on widely different trajectories helped me internalize how I could live my life.

I grew up in the suburbs of Ontario, Canada, which exposed me to roughly five possible life pathways. Moving to a major city with a community focused on developing impactful technology made me completely re-evaluate the timelines I had created for myself.

It was especially helpful for visualizing the hundreds of life-changing decisions I get to make: the purpose that preoccupies my mind, my long-term life commitments, my relationships. Expanding my worldview made me realize I didn’t need to meet traditional milestones. It also made me feel more secure in adopting unconventional mindsets.

Be critical of adults

Having mentorship throughout your gap year is quite helpful, whether it’s for achieving technical competence, working through important decisions, or talking through emotional circumstances. Be sure to choose your mentors wisely.

Many conversations with adults will transition into advice or mentorship, what they wish they would’ve done at your age, how to approach specific situations, or what you should focus your ambitions towards.

You might be quick to accept their guidance because they’ve achieved some version of success that you want (starting a company, raising funding, working on a complex technical problem, etc.). Remember, most adults riffing advice won’t suffer the consequences of their actions.

One of my favorite lines from Laura Deming’s Advice for Ambitious Teenagers: “Adults who know nothing of your field may tell you that you are great because of what you are doing at your age. Be nice but internally skeptical when they do.

A great example of this is dropout culture. In Silicon Valley, it’s glamorized for young people to drop out, so it’s frequent practice for adults to be “impressed” by what you’re working on and encourage you to not go to college.

‘Dropping out’ can be interchanged for any set of actions. In any case, it’s easy to accept an idea that’s constantly being reinforced. If you do or don’t agree, be aware as to why, not because “x, y, and z” person said it’s a good idea, but because you think “a, b, and c” reasons make sense for your life trajectory. Formulate your own opinions.

Don't compare yourself to other young people

We usually admire adults, wanting to become more like them once we’re older. In contrast, we envy other teenagers because we want to measure up.

It’s easy to look at a person’s LinkedIn or have a conversation with them and become envious of what they’ve achieved. That’s because we extend the best versions of ourselves to strangers. This becomes easier to internalize once you fail frequently. Those rejections won’t make it to the internet, but your college, internship, and fellowship acceptances will. Comparison is incredibly inaccurate.

When you find yourself comparing yourself to your friends that are in college or working for prestigious companies, question why you aren’t there right now. It's likely that those things don't get you closer to your current goals.

Get to know yourself

Before my gap year, I didn’t really know myself; I couldn’t point out my passions or hobbies and lacked awareness of my identity. This is the case for most people unless you specifically dedicate time to learning more about yourself. A gap year is a great time to do this.

I spent my free time trying new things, exploring new cities, and meeting new people. Each experience contributed to a clearer understanding of myself. Now, I’m aware of the spaces I like being a part of, I understand my emotions and how to effectively respond to them, and I enjoy my own company, amongst other things. This self-understanding has made me significantly happier.

Explore areas that you’re naturally drawn towards. Get comfortable trying things alone.This is by far the most important thing I’ve accomplished this year that will continue to serve me for the rest of my life.

Reflect, frequently

My goals and long-term value function transformed significantly throughout my gap year. This updating was only possible because I actively sought out periods of reflection and clarity.

Take a weekend, either halfway or every quarter of your gap year, go to a cabin or a beach town, whatever gives you good vibes, and reflect on the past couple of months. Think about what you’ve learned, what’s changed thus far, and how you intend to spend the following months. It’s hard to know everything you want out of your gap year at the start, this is a good way to figure it out.

You have complete agency over your life

If your gap year turns out to be similar to my gap year and you follow some of the advice above, at some point, maybe near the end, I suspect you’ll internalize that you have complete and genuine agency over your life.

People often say (some version of), “you get to decide how to live your life,” but saying it is very different from actually believing it.

If you take this gap year and want to take another one but fear that your parents will be upset, you’ll realize that it’s truly in your control. You can move out of your hometown, completely change your field of work, or drop out. Sometimes a reminder of this is helpful; here’s a list of things you’re allowed to do.

You get to choose how you spend every moment of your life; do things that produce the greatest amount of joy or move you towards your value function, even if that’s hard for the people around you to understand.
I spent my gap year surrounded by incredible people. A sincere thank you to every company I’ve worked with, community I’ve joined, housemate I’ve lived or traveled with, and the new friends I’ve made along the way. Without you, this list wouldn’t have been possible!

If you’re considering taking a gap year, I’m always happy to chat about the experience! Reach me at sabrinaasingh@hotmail.com.

Related posts I've found helpful, on similar-ish topics:
Laura Deming’s Advice for Ambitious Teenagers
Kipply’s You can’t be “not good enough” to skip (or drop out of) college
Patrick Collison’s Advice
Chris Olah's Do I Need to Go to University?