Taking a gap year is a rite of passage. Here are the life lessons one young Hongkonger learned from taking a year off.
If you’ve read my previous article about taking a gap year, welcome back. If you don’t know me, I am a 19-year-old who took a year off studying after secondary school graduation. Throughout my 17 months in Hong Kong, I enjoyed all the best things in town (staycations, new restaurants, massages… you name it!), but I’ve also had experiences that have taught me things that I wouldn’t have learnt at school. Before I leave Hong Kong and go to university, I want to share with you three life lessons from taking a year off.
1. Strive for things within your control, and don’t blame yourself when the unexpected happens.
Growing up in elite schools, I was always told that I have to be the best in order to live the life I want. Be a top student, get into a world-class university, find a job with a high salary… Since I somehow managed to accomplish these ‘social expectations’, I truly believed that anything was achievable with effort and dedication. But I had yet to learn that most of the things that happen in life are beyond my control.
While I was working this year, I had verbal confrontations that scared me. (Not with my colleagues, in case you’re wondering. My co-workers are amazing!). Having done my best and with a sincere attitude, I couldn’t understand why I had to face those terrifying words.
The truth is, some people might act rude at work just because they are having a bad day. I was right to reflect on what I could have done differently, but I was wrong to think that it was entirely my fault. At the end of the day, I shared the incident with a career mentor, figured out that the problem was miscommunication, and learned that I shouldn’t overthink things when future conflicts occur.
So, if you are a perfectionist teen like me, taking a year off can help you learn that your career will be very different from your student experience. Good grades are attainable through your own effort and hard work, but achievements at work are often affected by uncontrollable factors like people, luck, and timing.
2. Cherish the ‘good’ bosses and co-workers
I’ve met people with all kinds of different personalities while working in junior positions in the F&B industry while taking a year off from school, and I’ve gradually learned what it’s like to have a ‘good’ boss. I was lucky to work with managers who knew my strengths, encouraged me to try new things, and involved me in decision making. I proposed and executed different ideas, increased my potential, and learned valuable lessons first-hand.
Moreover, surrounding myself with motivated, passionate co-workers has never felt more important. Soon after I joined the company, my direct manager’s seat went empty, so I pushed myself to take on challenging tasks as a newbie. Fortunately, I identified my weaknesses and reached out to the experts for help. When I was unsure about copywriting, I spoke to a colleague who has worked in communications. When I felt lost about social media strategy, I did some training with a veteran marketing consultant. (She’s not even my colleague but she’s happy to teach!)
To me, ‘good’ people in the workplace aren’t necessarily the smiley ones, but those who can help me acquire new skills and grow in my career.
3. You deserve to enjoy something nice, mindfully
Our spending ability can be restricted by our income, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy good things occasionally. A few months ago, I became so frugal that I spent as little money as possible on almost everything. I set a maximum-spending limit of $60/day, thrifted $14 near-expired sandwiches, and obsessively tracked my expenses on Google Sheets. Although I managed to increase my savings for university, I felt miserable.
I was malnourished, socially disengaged and preoccupied by money-saving ideas. “Your parents work hard to afford your private education. Don’t you feel guilty about taking a year off and spending your money?”
As a result, I’ve since learned that being thrifty means spending on the right things, but not restricting all spending all the time. When I am sick, I go see a doctor instead of hoping that I will get better by myself. When I’ve finished reading a challenging book, I reward myself with a nice meal — which I’ve learned helps keep me motivated. When my friends invite me out to dine at a fancy restaurant, I remind myself that I have the right to suggest a cheaper alternative.
Be mindful of the purpose of your spending, and don’t compromise on your basic needs — that’s my golden rule.
Lessons for life
To be frank, after taking a year off from school to gain vocational experience, I’m worried if I will seem odd among 5,000+ other freshmen who just got out of secondary school. What’s good, however, is that I discovered that I am passionate about working in the hospitality industry and, as a result, will attend one of the world’s best hotel schools. The people that I have met, and the friends that I have made, have taught me valuable life lessons from taking a year off that I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated at the beginning of my gap year.
In short, taking a year off from school was dramatic, life-changing, and extraordinary.