Career,  Long Read,  Personal

Reflecting on My Gap Year

Today marks the one year anniversary of the day I left my corporate job and entered into self-employment. Recently, I’ve started calling this period a gap year instead. Sure, I did some independent work during my time off but I wasn’t exactly self-employed by the textbook definition. While I spent half the year working myself to the bone only to realize I’ve put myself in a worse position than when I had a full-time job and the other half, well, I didn’t work much. At exactly the one year mark, I’m back at a crossroads again.

One Year Ago

I vividly remember the months leading up to my resignation. I told my manager I wanted to leave and she tried to talk me down. She asked me to consider alternatives within the company. Alright, I’ll give it a go. I went to HR and asked for a transfer.

Over the course of four years, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my work. Thoughts crossed my mind of things I prefer to be doing instead. I’d daydream about being a financial analyst in an investment bank or a business strategist consulting top-management on important decisions. At the time, I thought those were pretty glamorous jobs in my field. I caught myself in those moments thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could use all this knowledge that I’ve learned, all these ideas that I have in a real-world business environment?”

The opportunity finally presented itself: “Where would you like to be placed in the company?” Here it was, my chance to do the thing I said I wanted. Interview arrangements were made with department heads in investment banking and corporate strategy. I went into them with nervous excitement. One of these was going to be the right fit. But I came away from those interviews with a sinking feeling in my gut. Why?

I realized what I thought I wanted deep down was something I didn’t really want at all.

A terrifying question followed that realization, “What do you really want?” A year on and I’m finding myself asking that same question again.

The Instruction Manual

Growing up society convinced me that there’s a default instruction manual that everyone follows and if I don’t follow them, I won’t be successful and I won’t be happy. You know the one; go to school, get good grades, get into university, take up a degree that has good career prospects, find a stable job in a good company, find a spouse, buy a house, settle down, have children, and work until you retire. I followed these instructions up until a year ago and yet, I wasn’t happy. I was so afraid because I didn’t know how to be happy with the instruction given to me. This fear was debilitating, to say the least.

I’m fully aware that I’m in a privileged position. Many can’t even afford to quit their jobs, those jobs are the only options they have. Why would I give up something a lot of other people wanted?

I put myself through a form of mental gymnastics to convince myself that it’s all in my head. Be grateful, people say, while I struggle; trying and failing to be happy.

For a long time, I couldn’t even take the leap to leave my company. Because what’s more frightening was the notion that if I did say “Screw the instructions” and tore it up like an IKEA manual, what if I still can’t find a way to be happy? What then?

I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a familiar sentiment echoing through my generation. Y’know, millennials. Just look at the thousands upon thousands of think pieces dissecting the millennial brain, trying to figure us out or better yet accusing us of being whiny self-absorbed assholes. But if a generation persistently shows similar signs of unhappiness, maybe, just maybe there’s something wrong with the instructions given to us.

The question then becomes, what are the new instructions? I spent the last year grappling with this. I left my job with zero contingency plans and I tried my best to figure out a path with no instructions.

The Gap Year

Since I started my “real job” I saved consistently. More often than not, I had a positive balance at the end of every month. Looking back on it, I definitely had (and still have) an unhealthy attachment to money. This unhealthy attachment came in handy when I managed to build enough savings to last a full year of unemployment. The comfort of knowing I have a fall back if shit hit the fan gave me the courage to take a break.

The break didn’t last very long.

Time for Exploration

As January came around, I found myself in a busy spot. I got to do things that were beyond my comfort zone. I was excited, the nerd in me loved a steep learning curve. Having almost no background in management before, I found that I really enjoyed being in control, making decisions and running things. I quickly learned how to set up my own company and manage its finances. I wanted to do all sorts of things; make content, write, teach, consult, do this and that.

For six months, I worked on multiple projects simultaneously. I helped a small business set up their operations and managed their bookkeeping, I created social media content for several companies and I taught Math. I did anything and everything that was thrown my way. Grabbing every single opportunity because I was so hyped to explore different fields to see if one of them would stick.

But instead of finding happiness in exploration, I found myself unhappy yet again.

Somewhere in the midst of trying to discover the kind of work I can be passionate about, I stretched myself too thin. There were days where I was beyond exhausted. What little personal time I had, I spent it either sleeping or having a mental breakdown. My mental health deteriorated and my mood swings became more pronounced. I became increasingly worried about sustaining my income level when I shouldn’t have. Hello, remember those savings?

All this while struggling to study for the CFA exam. A certificate that I spent the last four years of my life trying to attain. I still question why I’m pursuing it. When exam day rolled around, I knew I was ill-prepared for it because I spent too much time working or being too anxious to study.

Knowing My Limit

One of the biggest revelation this past year was learning what my limits were because I pushed myself way past them. It’s hard to stop yourself when you’re on a roll. I got so caught up trying to do too much that I forgot I was supposed to take this time to figure shit out.

It wasn’t until a friend talked some sense into me right after one of my panic attacks that I took a break. Again. I needed to step back and question everything I was doing at that point. I needed to put my foot down. Somehow putting my foot down translated into booking a flight to Europe for six weeks.

Extended Holiday

I could harp on about my trip to Europe, believe me, I’ve done it countless times to anyone who’d listen. Because finally, I took the time to just be. I didn’t know I carried around so much worry that it physically weighed on me. A whole new perspective opened up to me when that weight was replaced by a 40kg backpack. It was almost freeing.

During my extended holiday, I started cultivating habits that in turn tweaked my mindset. Ironically, these are habits that I should have cultivated at work. What were they?

  1. Learning to let things go – Being on a holiday didn’t give me much time to sulk about the little mishaps I made. I learned quickly from my mistakes and moved on.
  2. Gaining confidence – As the weeks progressed, I became more confident, the type of confidence I didn’t think I had in me. It’s the type of confidence that comes from learning to be self-reliant while traveling alone. Because I’m forced to make decisions without any help, I started to trust my abilities more.
  3. Seeking help – If I needed help I became more comfortable asking for it. Throughout life, I kept my guard up with people but as I traveled it took a different sort of courage to seek out help and trust strangers.

I got a glimpse into ways of life that seemed unachievable to me. Work-life balance is such a foreign concept in Malaysia and yet, I saw people living contently with said balance in Europe. I came away from that experience with new eyes, with more questions about what it means to work, have a career and be happy.

Where It Leaves Me

I think I figured out a new instruction manual that works for me:

How does this thing/activity/work benefit my overall wellbeing?

If anything, this gap year taught me that finding fulfillment is an ongoing process. There is no one place or thing that holds the answer to my happiness. Every time I discover new information, it challenges me to question, reorient and make tough decisions. The shifting unpredictable nature of my gap year was nothing short of revelatory.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m at a crossroads yet again. Truth be told, some days I crave for the structure and routine of a corporate environment. Part of me wants to jump back into a full-time job with the renewed enthusiasm I have now. The other part wants to continue this self-employment journey, to establish some sort of footing in an entrepreneurial role. And then there’s a smaller, albeit vocal, part that wants to go back to school (what a nerd).

I have to laugh a little because it looks like my path isn’t all that much clearer than it was a year ago.

But this much I can say with certainty: I don’t regret taking the leap into the unknown a year ago. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have a much better understanding of my self and what I’m capable of. In hindsight, I’ve grown and progressed more this past year than I did when working full-time. And really, isn’t that an achievement in its own right?

Images via Pixabay and Pixabay

10 Comments

  • Nisa

    Hi Nicole!

    I found out about your blog from Suraya of Ringgit Oh Ringgit on Twitter 🙂 Boy, I am sooooooooo glad to find another female writer where one of the topic she blogs about is personal finance. I know there are but some don’t update so much anymore and knowing you are one, I feel so happy! But hey, no pressure there! Hehe

    Anyway, I can relate to your post so much. Just sharing – I worked in an MNC for 4.5 years and felt unhappy because I felt “empty”? Until I was headhunted by another MNC company and then I jumped ship, thinking that I would be happy, because yay to new environment, new things to learn! But then, guess what, I am still unhappy now. It’s been 3 months I’m working in the new company and I have already thought of quitting by end of the year. I give myself time until the end of the year because I don’t know what I want to do and I don’t know what I’m good at. I feel like I have to figure out first, and then make the decision. I want to work as a freelancer but the field that I’m working right now is not very marketable in Malaysia, the demand for the service is near to zero. Reason of quitting is not because the company is not good, it’s a good company with good benefits but I feel like this 9am-6pm job and lifestyle is not something that I want to do in the long run. I want to pursue Masters but I haven’t figured out what I want to pursue either! That’s so weird, right? Like I feel so lost hahahhh

    I’m still working in the new company and still figuring out what I want to do with my life. Reading your post, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way because when I told my parents and my husband, they were so flabbergasted, they don’t understand! I wish I have the courage like you to take the leap and I hope I have the courage by end of this year. *Fingers crossed*

    Anyhow, looking forward to your other writings soon! I’ve subscribed to your blog 🙂

    Take care!

    Regards,
    Nisa

    • imfunemployed

      Hi Nisa,

      Thanks for stopping by! And for having faith in me as a PF blogger haha 🙂

      I’m glad you found this post helpful. I completely understand your situation and how you’re feeling. What I can say is hang in there and stick to your plan. On a more practical note, what I find helpful is writing a list of pros and cons on each path you see yourself taking. Listing out how you and where you can end up 5 years down the road.

      For example, if you want to go back to school, narrow down to things that you’re passionate about learning. I think the hindsight we have from our undergrad/degree days is helpful to curate specifically the things we’d like to learn. It would also help to speak to a guidance counselor from one of the universities or go for Postgrad roadshows to see what options interest you. Ask them specific questions like what is the course structure like, what subjects are in the course, who are the lecturers teaching etc. Another thing that I find helpful is to separate your idea of your study journey from “what can this masters/degree do to benefit my career?” because personally, once I put career expectations on learning, it becomes less enjoyable for me. So I’ll always say something like, “Worst come to worst, just become a lecturer in XYZ course lah”.

      This gap year thing gave me faith in myself to trust my capabilities and life has a way of working itself out when you have the right intentions behind your actions. I wish you the best on your journey to finding career fulfillment, please do keep me updated on your journey if you can.

      Cheers,
      Nicole

      • Nisa

        Dear Nicole,

        Omg, you replied my comment! What an honour! 🙂

        Anyway, thanks so much for your advice! I really appreciate them. You know when you wrote “what can this masters/degree do to benefit my career?” because personally, once I put career expectations on learning, it becomes less enjoyable for me.” it hit me quite hard, because THAT question you asked, was the same one I asked myself when I thought about pursuing Masters and yes, you are right, it becomes less enjoyable. I think that might be the reason why I am not able to figure out what I want to pursue for Masters. OMG. Thank you soooo much, Nicole! Your advice really opens up my eyes!

        Alright! Sure, if there is any update, I will let you know :):)

        Thanks again!

        Regards,
        Nisa

  • Syukriyah

    Hi Nicole,

    I feel good to know someone who is on the same boat with me. I’ve been unemployed for more than a year. I quit my after being in a long distance relationship with my husband for 3 years. I’ve finished my master and get a job as a lecturer, its make me happy but I then resign. I moved to Segamat (because my husband work there), but there is not so many choices of jobs that is suitable for my qualification.In this one year, I’ve tried few things that might worked for me such as teaching tuition, baking but then its not really convincing in this one year. I feel frustrated and disappointed. I’m still searching for something that suits me well. It makes me think that this one year gap is more on searching what will suits us well. Some plan maybe works but many plans won’t work. Haha.

    Anyway, hope to hear from you soon.

    Take care

    Syukriyah

    • Nicole

      Hi Syukriyah,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I know how frustrating it can be to try many different things but not having them pan out the way you’d like them to. I’m sort of in that situation as well, I suppose. Optimism is something that I’m working at, so right now I try to take all these experiences, the good with the bad, and treat them as life lessons. How will I learn if I don’t stumble and fall once in a while? Keep on searching and persevering! I’m rooting for you 🙂

      Best of luck,
      Nicole

  • Aaron

    Hello Nicole,

    Stumbled upon here via Suraya Ringgit Oh Ringgit as well.

    Thank you for this post. Really enjoyed reading your journey. Much respect for your courage, and best wishes for all the great things you want to achieve.

  • Ivan

    Hi Nicole! I totally resonated with so many of the points you brought up. Also about how travel can really teach us about ourselves and grow into better people.

    I’ve been asking the same questions for years and as you’ve pointed it out, it is still an ongoing process. I’ve been at this same industry/job for close to 6 years in what i thought was my passion and now i find that it no longer fulfills me and am pondering what’s next.

    Like you, i am also considering taking a gap year and am working towards that as well. I think so many people are so distracted with life that they don’t give time to themselves to reflect.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    Ivan

    • Nicole

      Hey Ivan, thanks so much for reading. I’ll be rooting for you to get an opportunity to go on a gap year as well. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Not just because of what a risk it is financially but also because you’ll have to confront a lot of uncomfortable questions that most people don’t generally want to think about. But if you’re willing to take the risk and if it’s something you’re seriously considering then go for it. Let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear what insights you gain as a result from whichever decision you make.

      Best of luck,
      Nicole

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