A business professor explains why an adult gap year can benefit your career

Gap years for high school graduates have exploded in the last decade, so much so that organizing gap years has become a cottage industry. There is a non-profit Gap Year Association to accredit and track known gap-year programs, and even Malia Obama, the daughter of the former U.S. president, notably undertook a gap year in 2017.

Gap years traditionally come between high school and the first year of college. Most teenagers, already admitted to university, ask the institution for a delay in their start date to work, travel, volunteer or complete an internship. Despite the name, about 70% of gap years last just about one semester.

Plainly, they’re here to stay.

Gap years are also drawing interest from a segment of the population that says it could really use the break—mid-career adults. Of course, adults have responsibilities that teenagers don’t. Yet some could argue that renewal leave would be even more valuable to adults in mid-life than students near the beginning of their lives.

Today, only 3% of U.S. companies and organizations offer fully paid sabbaticals to their employees, according to WorldatWork, an association for human resources professionals. Widely recognized examples range from Patagonia, which gives two-month leaves for employees who volunteer for charities and nonprofits, to the AARP, which offers four weeks of renewal leave to employees after seven years on staff.

Still, employers can be forgiven for not quite seeing the value of extended, paid leaves of absence for employees. There remains a “gap” in identifying the value-add — the force multiplier, in current organizational jargon — of an adult gap year (AGY), especially in how the experience can contribute to the long-term productivity and performance of an organization.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the information age, it’s a lack of reflection,” noted James Mattis, retired four-star Marine Corps General.

AGYs are not without perils, of course, but more and more experts are seeing their value to both the individual and the organization, especially if the AGY is designed to be more than an extended vacation. The emphasis with the AGY should not be to transform a young life but rather to transition to the next stage in life at mid-career.

What is (or isn’t) an adult gap year (AGY)?

It’s hard to discuss what a gap year for an adult is without explaining what isn’t. The former cannot be understood without the latter because there are some built-in misconceptions about gap years, renewal leaves and sabbaticals. Let’s start by defining an AGY.

It is not rest or relaxation. Instead, it’s renewal and restoration. It’s not a tranquil vacation but rather an invitation to vitality. It’s not an aimless walk in the woods, but an intentional hike toward a better future. Unlike the teen version, it’s not about figuring out where to go and who to be; it’s about evaluating exactly who you are at this point in your life.

Some professions build in time for this reflection. Most pastors are regularly awarded renewal leave throughout their careers. Many public school teachers use their expansive summer terms to take courses to renew their teaching certificates. And college professors can take one-year sabbaticals for research and academic pursuits every seven years.

An AGY may be an exciting opportunity for “boredom”, but it poses some challenges in terms of finances, family, and, yes, fears. First, it’s important to set aside your irreplaceability syndrome at work. You have accomplished what you have for a reason. Your talent will not be forgotten. In fact, choosing an AGY could make you more desirable in the workforce, more effective in your job and more successful in your future.

“If leadership begins not with what you do but with who you are, then when and how do you escape the noise to find your purpose and summon the strength to pursue it?” asked business consultant Jim Collins in his book Lead Yourself First. “We run the risk of waking up at the end of the year having accomplished little of significance, each year slipping by in a flurry of activity pointing nowhere.”

Next, it’s critical you work through your fears around finances and family. If you’re lucky enough to be working for an organization that provides fully paid or partially paid sabbaticals, make sure to take one. If not, set aside modest amounts weekly to fund your AGY. It might be cheaper than you think.

Finally, it’s important to establish the character of your AGY for your family. Your family may want to offer suggestions on how to spend your time. Chores around the house, summer vacations, and family commitments may be good filler, but they don’t constitute an AGY.

A well-considered AGY can help adults become something they want to be, with measured and reasoned purpose. Or it can bring back a lost enthusiasm for your work or your company, allowing you to improve your attitude, input, and performance. It is not, however, a cure for a mid-life crisis bubbling up from a bad job and extreme ennui.

Employers might also want to consider the advantages realized for their organizations when employees return to work replenished. The benefits can be small and large, strategic and tactical. The best ideas tend to come from open time not encumbered by obligation. Like peak athletes, even the best executives and employees need to decouple from work to maintain acuity and focus.

5 tips to a great AGY

Remember, an AGY probably won’t be successful without a well-structured design. An effective AGY differs from a conventional break-in that what is on the other side is often unknown, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for your adventure. There is power in the pause if it is achieved through thoughtful preparation:

  1. Plot a personal plan. What is it that you want to learn about yourself, and where do you want to go with your life and your career? (This gives you a chance to evaluate your values and align your priorities.)
  2. Plot an action plan. What are the best experiences that will help you to realize Tip 1? Evaluate the places to go, things to see, charities to volunteer for, and who to reconnect with in terms of family, friends or even enemies.
  3. Consider whether to take this journey on your own or with others. It is tempting to embark on an excursion or a voyage of growth with a friend at your side but think carefully about whether this is a passage for one or not.
  4. Be purposeful and flexible. For instance, if you planned on visiting a museum to learn about Greek culture, but had a chance meeting with a stranger along the way, go for it. Who knows what can be discovered on the road to revelation?
  5. Be diligent with chronicling your time. Bring an iPad, laptop or even a pencil and paper. By spending 30 minutes a day recording your experiences, you’ll be able to document your personal explorations.

The AGY can be a time for creative rejuvenation. Novel ideas seldom come from pressure-packed schedules; they need monotony and space to rise and flow. Every seven years, New York City-based designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his studio for an entire year for creative renewal.

“Motion and stillness – busyness and laziness – are equally important,” wrote Kazuaki Tanahashi in his memoir Painting Peace, Art in a Time of Global Crisis. “And because most of us are busy all the time and ignore laziness, it is beneficial sometimes to cultivate laziness. All creative thoughts and actions derive from a state of unstained boredom.”

Finally, there may be something to be learned about an AGY’s value in the unlikely sport of bullfighting. There is a concept called carencia, which describes the moment in a bullfight when the bull settles and pauses. It is here that the bull is most powerful. The matador’s job is to keep the bull agitated, preventing him from finding this place of supremacy. In repose, the bull is most explosive.

An AGY can be an opportunity to bring that explosiveness into your own life or to maximize your most priceless resource – time. Life is precious and fragile. Some are woken up to this fact through tragedy, but many do not live as if there is a 100% mortality rate. Better not to be trapped in a job that drains your soul, or to wait for retirement to find fulfillment. One must rise to success by saying “yes” to many things, especially a well-planned, purposeful AGY.

James Bailey is a professor and Stacy and Jonathan Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.