Gap year: A break to reboot

Chetan Mahajan | Updated on November 20, 2020

Line of thought: The future needs young adults who are creative and adaptable, not preprogrammed automatons   -  ISTOCK.COM

A gap year might just be the pause an Indian youngster needs

* Not every young person has to be blinkered to become an engineer or acquire an MBA

* The deterministic, straight-line thinking about careers is a thing of the past. People switch careers like towels

“Mom, I want to take a gap year!”

What do you feel when you hear those words? Horror? Happiness? Confusion?

India is a straight-line country. The process of competing with thousands of other kids for a single spot is what keeps us focussed.

Parents want kids to ace the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination for the premier Indian Institutes of Technology) or CAT (Common Admission Test for the elite Indian Institutes of Management) — to have a future well-provided for. That around 8.5 lakh students appeared for the JEE in the midst of a raging pandemic shows how much it matters to us. Parents cannot ensure that their children will stay heterosexual or have happy marriages. Parents cannot prevent their offspring from becoming political deviants or activists. So parents push the employability box: Get a professional degree, they chime.

So high schoolers become engineers for their parents. Then they do what they really want. Actors Madhavan and Taapsee Pannu are engineers, so are cricketer Anil Kumble and stand-up comic Kanan Gill.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Not every young person has to be blinkered to become an engineer or acquire an MBA. Even if they do, it may give them no joy. Skipping that professional degree to pursue a passion is much less wasteful. Times are turbulent. The deterministic, straight-line thinking about careers is a thing of the past. People switch careers like towels. Economists become potters become architects become film-makers become businessmen become writers become social workers.

Take Gaganjit Singh — he studied photography in London and worked as a professional photographer for a decade in Delhi. Then he became a full-time potter. He also dehydrates and sells fruit commercially, and has most recently turned to landscape design. And Singh is not a one-off case. Today’s kids are unlikely to stick to a single career through a lifetime. Technology is creating new jobs which are beyond our imagination, and making old jobs redundant. The future needs young adults who are creative and adaptable, not pre-programmed automatons.

Unfortunately, our education system runs on built-in tunnel vision. It doesn’t teach kids to think for themselves. If children are told what to do in an assembly line for 14 straight years, they will continue to do so in the 15th year — they will follow orders.

So students hurry to earn degrees out of habit or pressure, even though there isn’t any real hurry. “My parents are very driven and refused to let me be ‘idle’ in life. The concept of a gap year didn’t sit well with them — they felt like I hadn’t earned the right to ask for a year off,” says Raghav Kapur, who took a gap year after his graduation and before he enrolled for a master’s degree in international economics.

We hate wasting anything, and we think of a break in a young person’s education — a gap year — as time wasted. Youngsters rush down the default path without questioning it. Newly-formed adults emerge as though out of a coma. They look at their degrees and say, “What did I do that for?” They wasted four years to save one. But changing track now would waste those four years too. Welcome to the rut.

Sohaib Ilyas from Delhi has a degree in architecture. After a few months as an architect, he quit. He is now a professional film-maker. “In hindsight, I wish I had developed film-making skills and done online courses instead [of architecture]. I would [have] invested the ₹20 lakh spent on my degree into setting up my own business,” he says. Hurtling down the default route incurs loss of not just years but money too. Taking a gap year might just prevent youngsters from getting a degree in something they do not care about.

Pressure can make one perform, but it can also blinker one’s vision. Our “pressure cooker” high schools shut out everything but academics. Maybe the young adult you’re trying to mould into an engineer is a chef, a care-giver, a gifted writer or a showman. Does she know? Do you?

Wouldn’t it be nice to let young people discover who they really are? A gap year is the time when one lets the pressure off and allows the young to explore their real interests. Try things out. Learn new skills. Discover themselves. A gap year allows a youngster to make an informed, independent decision. She might understand her internal machinery, and be able to put her finger on what makes her tick.

Meghna Joshi did. She dropped out of her economics degree course at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She used the gap year to “attend three 10-day silent meditation retreats, restore balance into my life, and write”. The gap year changed her path. “I switched to studying literature, journalism, and film. Now I make a living out of writing, which I didn’t think was possible, ” she says.

There is no guarantee that a gap year will reveal a young person’s true calling. Or that they won’t change their minds. But at least one will be treating an adult like an adult, and making them responsible for their future. In the process the youth may escape a rut and discover true joy.

Chetan Mahajan, an MBA-turned-writing coach, is a small-time entrepreneur and co-founder of the Himalayan Writing Retreat

Published on November 20, 2020

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