Do you know what is your passion in life? Do you know what you’d naturally like to do till late at night? As a mid-20s Singaporean, I often hear from my age group that they don’t know what they want to do. If you’re one of them… then may you need to take a gap year. You’re not alone,4/5 people in Singapore are likely to face a quarter-life crisis.
The rat race
When was the last time you actually spent time exploring your passions and yourself? If you are like me, you’ve spent a quarter of your life jumping over hoops in School and then spending the rest of the time recovering from the stress.
In between preparing for exams, you have CCAs to juggle, homework, school projects and assignments to finish. It is no wonder that when it comes to the weekend or holidays that we spend it way doing “brainless” activities like watching movies, scrolling through social media and/or playing video games to unwind and relax.
Even after we leave the education system, we continue to chase arbitrary goals set by society — the next promotion, getting more money, getting married, getting a car, getting a house and having kids.
Before long, we meet our deaths.
This is not to belittle our previous 20 years as unimportant. It is because we are constantly bombarded with important and urgent tasks that we have been kept so busy. How much time have you allocated to answering the important but not urgent task of discovering yourself?
Urgency and Importance
I previously didn’t understand what the difference between urgency and importance was. In my head, urgent tasks are important because it has to be done quickly and therefore I thought important was an intermediate form of an urgent task. This is wrong, importance is its category. I learnt this from Chia Ler who is my close friend in REP.
- Important and urgent → these tasks are the most critical things to do at any point in time
- Urgent and not important → these tasks are administrative, compliance tasks that everyone has to do
- Important and not urgent tasks, however, refers to tasks that are “not important right now” or “I’ll do it tomorrow” type of task.
- Not important and not urgent → probably things like consuming social media, think “entertainment”
Life questions, like the question of who am I, what do I want to do, what am I good at, what am I passionate about → are type 3 tasks. These are so important questions, yet it’s never actually urgent enough to warrant focus on it and hence for many of us, we just let it remain unanswered.
Why you should take a gap year
“I don’t have anything to do and it would be a gap year would waste of time” — a typical rebuke to taking a gap year
Even if you don’t have anything to do, it is my opinion that you should take the time to discover yourself or just take a break. Simply taking a break can be a framework to discover yourself. What would you naturally gravitate to when you have nothing you have to do?
There is, however, limits to this logic. Anyone would love to go for a “insert-pleasurable-activity-here” if they have nothing to do. A better framework is imagining/experiencing what you would do after doing the “pleasurable activity” for a month. When was the last time you truly had time to laze around? In our modern society, perhaps never. A gap year would supply you with this opportunity to laze around and find out what you would like to do.
Of course, there are many other ways to find your passion — if you have an amazing work-life balance perhaps you don’t need the extra time. However, for most, there isn’t enough time left in the day to dig into something.
If you already have something in mind you’d like to explore — starting a business or working in an interesting industry, the more you should consider this option. This is the best time to do so as you won’t keep having to compare with your peers when they start entering more traditional industries. Going on a gap year would double confirm if this is the right path for you as early as possible.
- You get to network with more batches of Uni students. The network you gain in Uni I argue is more important than the degree and knowledge.
- Being able to leverage the school resources while not paying for school fees. This means networking with more profs, utilizing school opportunities (events, competitions) without actually being or paying to be a student in the school
- Prolonging student privileges. Being a student, people lower their defenses and are more willing to help when approached. Compared to approaching someone as a professional, approaching someone as a student can open more doors.
- Providing an environment of focus and time pressure. Having one thing and only one thing to focus on really helps you to do that one thing well. Plus, the need to get something done within a year gives you a sense of urgency to do something that produces results.
Who should take a gap year
- Someone that has always wanted to start a business, someone who doesn’t really like studying and/or is on the fence about a specific passion/ industry. You should take a gap year. You know who you are.
- Someone that needs hardcore knowledge if you dream is to be a professor or a professional engineering/accountant/lawyer/doctor and dentist you probably should not take a gap year. Unless you are considering a career change.
How to take a gap year?
Convincing the parents
- Pitch to them, use your presentation/ Powerpoint skills and lay out the reasons why you should take a gap year
- Demonstrate that you have a plan and a mature attitude. This can be a rough plan /timeline.
Convincing the school
- This can be easier than expected. Often school requires a reason — mention the business idea you want to pursue or the reason why you want to take a gap year
- NTU needs an official reason.
- NUS can be quite strict on this (according to my NUS friend)
- SUTD — prof can be very supportive
When to take a gap year?
Take it during year 2 or year 3 onwards. In year 1, you want to first make friends with your batch mates and have a taste of what university is about. There might be some restrictions due to FYP in year 4.
During the gap year
This is the first time in your life that no one will be telling you what to do. Make sure you have good habits — exercising, reading books, meditation that supports your growth.
Choose to put a time-bound to total relaxation, perhaps 1–2 months. Sometimes you need to relax and unwind before stressing out on your new adventure. I rushed into my next venture straight away and I regret not taking some time off to relax.
Be careful not to “nua” or relax too much.
What can you do during your gap year?
- Build your own company — this is for those of you who always had that startup idea
- Take a chill pill
- Jam pack it with internships — try different business functions
- Start a blog/podcast/ youtube channel
- Here are 9 ideas to build passive income channels -9 Passive Income Ideas — How I Make $27k per Week — YouTube
- If you’re self-funding and financially unable to take the gap year then you may need to adjust your plans, perhaps looking for a job that complements your interest and also satisfies your basic needs.
- However, it is also likely that you are funded by your parents. If your pitch goes well, you can perhaps do a “friends & family” round to fund the adventure.
What are the risks?
- The biggest risk is graduating later. However, taken from another viewpoint, our life expectancy in Singapore is 80+. If you’re in your 20s, you likely have around 60 more years to live. In the grand scheme of things, 1–2 years to answer some of your life’s biggest questions isn’t a long time. At your death bed, would you regret not taking the chance to find out what you are passionate about?
- Another common risk factor mentioned is the difficulty of coming back to school. If you’re successful in your business/ career then that would be a win anyway. Why come back for a piece of paper you’re not going to use?
- It is in fact riskier not to take a gap year and gain the benefits as explained above.
Retrospective and my personal experience
I was a year 2 Uni student in NTU and was doing my startup, Whizz Mobility, part-time while being a student. I was burnt out and stressed out doing both my business and studying for engineering mods (which are hard). Then out of nowhere, Covid happened which made our business model click. Deep down, I knew I wanted to take a gap year to focus on the business. After consulting my senior, Jun Yu, who has also taken a gap year previously, he advised me to listen to the podcast (linked below). I was on the fence about taking a gap year but the podcast pushed me over the edge. If you’re considering a gap year, I would encourage you to listen to it!
I’ve now taken 1.5 gap years, primarily to work on my startup. It was an awesome learning experience. In this short 1.5 years, years I’ve experienced a huge amount of jobs (18 to exact) and I can confidently say I know which ones I don’t particularly enjoy. Not to mention learning relevant skills: coding, management, design, leadership… the skills I have learnt is countless.
Most importantly, I’ve also learnt a lot about myself, who am I and what I’m capable of. Although I haven’t figured out everything yet, I’m definitely in a much better space compared to 1.5 years ago. One regret was that I was rather passive about it. I strongly recommend anyone to actively learn more about themselves. Knowledge of yourself would serve you no matter the situation and especially guide your whole gap year experience.
Thirdly, I would advise is not to be too sure that you know what you want to do. To me, when taking my gap year, I had a very clear goal to do my startup. It was my baby, sole vision and I couldn’t imagine anything else I would like to do. However, I’ve learnt that things can and do change.
Finally, I didn’t have an issue with too much relaxing. Instead, I had issues with overwork. No longer having time and mental limitations, I used 100% time to concentrate on the business, I went all in and a neglected my health because of that. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. Health is something you can never get back. To do well in your business, you have to have a strong body and mind anyway. Be sure to have healthy metal and physical habits before going on this journey.
Connect with me on linkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/foomelvin/)
Thank you to Jun Yu who is my senior at NTU. Who pointed me to that podcast and in the end tip me over the scale to doing a gap year.
Paul Graham on doing what you love: How to Do What You Love (paulgraham.com)
Chia Ler for (https://www.linkedin.com/in/chia-ler-chan-7504a8142) /teaching me the difference between importance and urgency
Thank you for those that read early versions of this essay who do not want to be named