Monday, 18 November 2013

Grown-up Gap Year

Why Should Kids Get All The Fun?

Many of us parents now find ourselves talking to teenage kids about what they will do on their gap year. So excited was my youngest daughter at 13, to see my son and I set off to cycle across the world, that she immediately began planning her own pre-university adventure. I began to take notice; and there was no doubt about it, the majority of teenagers now seem to see it as an issue of not if they will have a gap year, but when - perhaps along with who will pay for it. For many it comes a close second to completing a university entrance form (UCAS in the UK). I don't begrudge them that. I do believe that a gap year can be a valuable part of a young person's education – learning the stuff they don't teach you in school. Useful stuff like how other people live and how lucky we are to have what we have, learning how to speak other languages or even how to better communicate with people who do speak our own tongue. They can learn a lot. I'm often surprised by how many young people don't know where other countries are in the world or what kinds of people live there. I particularly think it valuable for them to find themselves in situations where they are developing skills for getting out of trouble and learning how to avoid it – learning how to seek out a bargain or the best quality in things with limited funds, or learning the value of a good pair of boots, a comfortable bed and a wholesome meal. Why kids don't learn most of these things at school or at home anymore I don't know, but I won't get going on that one.

So basically then, a gap year is a great idea, even if you can't get your parents to pay for it and even if it has to involve work. Actually I think it can often be better that way - especially as this means a lot to a future employer. But what about those of us who left school before gap years were thought of? Well in fact there were gap years for the well-off as far back as the turn of the 19th century and even before – it was know as The Grand Tour – but I doubt anyone reading this will be that old. And this was my feeling when my kids started to talk about gap years, "I wouldn't have minded having one of those myself!"

Grown-up Gap Years?
So why not? Sure it's great if you can go off and learn about the world before you embark upon your adult life. There's no doubt in my mind that travel or working abroad will make a young person far more employable in the world of work, and far better parents too when the time comes. But that is not to say that this is the only way. There are a great many reasons for taking an extended break from work later on in life. Here are a few:

1. You didn't get one when you finished school so you feel you missed out, compared to others.

2. Your experience of the world is limited so you feel unable to share conversations with friends or your own children and grandchildren.

3. You are bored with the same old living and working environments.

4. You are stressed after years of work and have seen others getting sick from overwork.

5. You need fresh impetus in your life - both privately and in your work. A fresh look at things. An extended trip away might help you to find a new direction.

6. Your job has ended and you don't know what to do next. You need to clear your head – look at things from a distance.

7. You have retired and you want to catch up on things you've missed out on.

8. You find yourself single again and want to meet some different people in new environments that might spark unexpected friendships, or even a romance.

9. You are tired of short, expensive package holidays and want to go overland travelling, like you did when you were young. Backpacking and staying in hostels.

10. You want to have some adventures before it's too late. Before you are too old or unfit to enjoy it.

I did not necessarily think I needed an adult gap year. At 42 I had been running my own successful consultancy business for 3 years. Before that I had had several careers and had lived in many other countries. I had taken lots of breaks from work to go overland travelling before my children were born, so I did not feel deprived. But I was working too hard. My eldest daughter was 13. My son was 10yrs old and they were just getting to the age where we could go off on little adventures together – cycling, hiking and camping, mainly. It was after my first cycle / camping trip with my 10yr old son Sam, one freezing English December, that he asked me if I would take a year off work when he finished school.
"What for?" I asked him.
"Well, I wondered if you'd cycle to Japan with me," he replied, nonchalantly.
8 years later we set off. But not before I had gone through a good deal of worry, trying to find someone to run my business while I was away.

As I have said, I did not need a gap year in the same way that other parents undoubtedly do. Or at least I didn't think I did. But the truth was I was overworked. Stressed. I had begun to focus only on work, with my family-life coming a poor second. I was there to provide for my family, I told myself. Someone had to pay for it all! But what I discovered over the next eight years, while I prepared for that gap year (actually I only started taking it seriously as a prospect about three years before we went), was that my family didn't want me to work so hard. My kids just wanted more time with me. My wife too, I think. She certainly didn't want to see me get a heart attack – and that was probably the way I was heading. So as I said, finding someone to run my business was a tough challenge just in order to escort Sam on a cycle trip from Ireland to Japan, but once we set off I realised something important. I didn't care about not earning so much money for a year. I didn't even care if I came home to find my business had folded - in fact once we set off I was able to see the whole exercise as a potential business exit plan. I had enough money for the trip and an adequate house. Why did I need more? My wife told me I should become a sculptor upon my return, since that is what I loved doing. But the absence of phone calls once we set off; the letters on the mat, bills, toilet cisterns needing mending or light bulbs changing – that was a revelation. I felt free in a way I almost never had. Not as an adult anyway. I felt reborn and I had hardly even been away for three days!

Why had I not done this before, I asked myself? I think because it never seemed possible. Too expensive. Too much time away. Perhaps it would have seemed irresponsible? My wife had certainly helped by telling me it was okay to do it. Good to do it, in fact. "You're allowed to enjoy it," she said.
But in the main, it happened because my son asked me to do it. Looking back, I can see that otherwise I probably would not have taken a break at all. Most likely I'd have kept driving myself to make my business evermore profitable, until I got sick or had an accident. Then I would have taken a break. Except I would probably never have been able to cycle 10,000 gruelling miles with an 18yr old. Not after a heart attack or cancer. No, I have my son to thank for my health, my peace of mind and the improved life that followed.

Incidentally, I did not come home to find my business had folded. I found my new business partner had increased business by 45%. He told me he was happy continuing to run it, largely without me. As a result I sat down to with my son to write a book about our experience (more about the trip and the book on my cycle travel blog) which subsequently became an Amazon bestseller. I never imagined myself becoming a writer or giving motivational talks to businesspeople, but I can see now that this was my destiny. It's a life that fits me well, but I would probably never have achieved it if I had resisted taking those ten months off work to go with my son on his gap year. You will be unsurprised to hear that the trip did wonders for our father-son relationship (an issue covered in the book).

Video of us cycling through 'The High Range of Travancore,' Munar, India. Click arrow.

My adult gap year was an adventurous trip, covering 10,000miles from the west coast of Ireland, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea and finally ending in Tokyo. Of course not all gap year trips need to be this way. I had an older friend in Japan who I taught English to when I was 25. He was a senior manager of a major Japanese trading company – an important and well paid job, but one he found rather mundane. Outside of work he had an interest in wild flowers and also watercolour painting. When he retired, he took a trip to a number of countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and China – seeking out unusual indigenous wild flowers and painting them. This eventually brought him to the attention of an international botanical society who asked him to submit some of his watercolours. Over time it led to his becoming an honorary fellow of the society, giving talks all over the world. He had never imagined he could do such a thing. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago. He told me he felt fulfilled by his post-retirement activities but wished he might have taken that first trip when he was a little younger. Who knows how that might have changed his life?

To find out more about my adult gap year and the resulting book, "Long Road Hard Lessons," can I suggest you have a look at the other posts on the travel blog (as well as on this Author blog), where you will find links to my books on Amazon etc. Thanks for reading – and please remember to make the most of your life.

For the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


  1. What an incredible experience. How wonderful that your son, at the age of 10, was able to see what a life changing challenge this would be for you all. I also have an intuitive son but unfortunately he hasn't persuaded me into worldwide travel - yet! Great post :-)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Shelley.
    I feel sure that a large percentage of the sales of the book 'Long Road Hard Lessons' are accounted for by parents hoping to drop subtle hints to their children, and spouses hoping to do the same with their partner!
    Have a great Christmas.