The CoronApocalypse has many students thinking of taking a gap year. I say, “Go.” But don’t do it just to avoid remote classes. Do as I did when I left school: make it a quest to find your calling in life.
Both of my parents were sergeants in the Marines Corps. Their highest aspiration for their skinny, bookish son was that I go to college and become a Marine officer. Short of that, my becoming a doctor or lawyer was their fallback position. I merely hoped to find work that made me happy to wake up every morning. But hope isn’t a strategy.
By the time I was in school I’d met plenty of college grads who weren’t happy in the jobs their degree had dropped them in. Others were going to grad school with only a vague idea of whether they would like the actual work they’d be qualified for. I had a nagging feeling that some people were going at their pursuit of happiness backwards.
After a sophomore year of good grades and lousy focus, I dropped out. In 1980 I didn’t know that I could have appeased my parents by calling it a gap year. But I committed to spending the entire decade of my twenties — if that’s what it took — to finding that key to happiness, my calling.
Your mileage may vary, but my gap year lasted 84 rollicking months of experimentation and exploration on two continents. Mostly I took jobs that are still viable despite Covid-19: felling trees; rescuing sea turtles; building houses; wrangling 3-year-olds and driving a powerboat. I also represented Rev. Jesse Jackson for president at the 1984 South Carolina Democratic convention. Granted, right now there are restrictions on travel and other activities, but the US is a big country to explore. And truly, every life is an experiment under difficult conditions. Just read Anne Frank’s diary to put social distancing in perspective.
Along the way I picked up a few touchstones to share to keep a gap year from turning into a cliff-dive.
- Some jobs paid well but felt wrong for me: lab tech and electrician’s helper. So, I learned how to bail before I got hooked on the money.
- And I did doubt my course at times. But I’d had those same doubts in school, so at least I wasn’t any worse off.
- Most important, I followed wherever my curiosity led, because finding one’s calling is more an emotional pursuit than an intellectual one. I certainly couldn’t have predicted where my calling would find me.
I spent that summer working 60-hour weeks on a construction site to build up muscle and money. I then logged six months Jack-Kerouacking my way across Europe. By autumn I was picking tangerines in Spain; a lone Yank among a dozen backpackers living in a hamlet of colorful tents. One evening, I sat next to a Spanish woman frying our dinner of potatoes and onions over the fire. She asked me to watch the pan and walked away. Coming back, she twisted the leaves of romero — wild rosemary — over the potatoes. I can smell it now. Awakened in a way I’d never felt before, I looked over my shoulder where wild herbs like lavender and thyme reflected firelight. Till then plants had been the wallpaper of my world: invisible and uninteresting. I still wanted dinner, but a hunger to learn the secret identity of every plant swallowed me first.
I had a newfound enthusiasm for plants, but my quest wasn’t over. Finding one’s calling isn’t the same thing as figuring out how to make it your living. That requires perseverance. Back in the States, I started an organic garden. Worked for a tomato farmer. Led a cooperative farm. And then applied to one of the top horticulture schools on the planet. My quest complete, I went back to college — to the relief of my parents. At the age of 27, I was three years ahead of my deadline, focused and happy.
After graduation I started a business designing gardens, planting flowers, building arbors, stone walls and treehouses (note there’s room for additional callings). I’m now sixty and still enjoy planting gardens and building garden structures for my clients.
I can imagine detractors saying modern students can’t do what I did. That I was only able to pull it off because of white privilege, family money and no pandemic. White privilege, maybe. But my mother didn’t go to college. And my father didn’t even go to high school. My childhood home was a trailer. I made little better than minimum wage till I was 32, when I started my garden business with a dirty, dented, used pickup truck.
And Covid? Here’s another touchstone.
I read memoirs by people who led harder lives than mine. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave helped me reframe my challenges. Being broke or navigating a pandemic in pursuit of a goal feel manageable compared to surviving a Siberian labor camp or being enslaved on a southern plantation.
Bottom line, a quest to find your calling doesn’t require a rich family or pre-Covid conditions. Just some courage; which is not the same as fearlessness. Courage means overcoming one’s fears. Then, once your calling finds you, you’ll become motivated and enthusiastic. You’ll be the kind of person who makes themselves happy and brings happiness to others. Your gap year doesn’t have to last 84 months. But take it from me. You’re far from a failure if it does.
Frank Hyman lives in Durham, NC. He is an author, sculptor, forager, former city council member and owner of an award-winning garden business.