Although I don’t like to admit it, I’m the kind of person who likes to have things figured out.
Ever since I was in middle school, my favorite subjects were science and math because there was never any ambiguity. Two plus two equals four. There is no grey area.
The comfort I have in certainty manifests itself in many ways. For instance, I booked all the hostels for the vacation I was planning to take after my gap semester 6 months prior, before I even left the country. While this is just a minor example of my desire to have things figured out, this part of my personality has applied to important aspects of my life as well. Once I realized I was passionate about environmental conservation about halfway through high school, I threw my entire life into it. I never once questioned my decision to major in environmental science. I became the “nature girl”. I was secure in the box that I created for myself. My plan was to take a semester off school, come back to finish my degree, and then start my career and live happily ever after. “You’re really going to find yourself on your gap year,” was the phrase that just about everyone and their mother told me before I left. While I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I sort of thought that I already had.
My bubble of sureness was popped the second I stepped off the airplane in Ecuador. See, Ecuador has a special way about itself that is incredibly unpredictable. Many times I would wake up and have no idea what the coming day held for me. But one of the most valuable things I learned while being abroad was that just saying yes to things leads to some of the most rewarding experiences.
One morning, I woke up and my host mom asked me if I wanted to walk to meet my host dad, who was out on a minga (an Andean word for a community development project.) The beginning of the walk was almost entirely uphill, and in all honestly, at the time I would have rather slept the afternoon away. But I said yes anyway, and it ended up being one of the best bonding experiences I had with my host mom in the entire four months I was there.
Another time, I was at my internship placement and one of my coworkers challenged me to speak in Spanish to a bunch of kids about recycling. I was very hesitant to agree because I was afraid of messing up. But I did it anyway. Although I stumbled through the first few times I did it, by the third time I was able to speak fluidly and was met with an intense feeling of pride.
As time went on, I realized that I was increasingly okay with not being sure about things. I realized that by creating so many boxes for myself, I was hindering my ability to discover new passions and hobbies. Yes, I am the girl who loves plants and recycling; but I am also the girl who loves to write and draw and finds psychology endlessly fascinating. Just because I chose to focus my future on the environment, it doesn’t mean that it is the sole thing that defines me.
On the plane ride home from Ecuador, I wrote in my journal:
“I think gap years are supposed to be a time to find yourself or whatever, but I feel like it was the opposite for me. Except in the best way possible. I’ve realized that I have so many directions I can take and that it’s totally okay to not know which one I’m going in. For me, life is so much more enjoyable without a plan because then there are absolutely no expectations. I learn so much more from spontaneity and doing things the hard way than from making a plan and constantly being comfortable.”
If you take a gap year, you will be full of expectations about what you will experience and how you might change because of it. I was the same way. And sure, some of my expectations did come true. But there is no way to anticipate the relationships you will build, the adventures you will have, and the obstacles you will overcome. Many things will go way differently than you expected, and just like me, by the end you may end up feeling like you created more questions than you answered. But if I’ve learned anything in the last few months of my life, it is that losing yourself can be just as rewarding as finding yourself.