Kirk Owers surfing in the Maldives.
Kirk Owers surfing in the Maldives.

I quit everything, but this is my one regret

I didn't know what I wanted to do when I left school but I knew where I wanted to do it: elsewhere.

I had it all planned. I'd surf Hawaii's hallowed breaks, snowboard the Canadian Rockies, dance in the mud at Glastonbury Festival and run wild with bulls of Pamplona.

After 13 years of schooling I was impatient. I wanted to experience the world now when I was young, not see it from the deck chair maybe one day when I was old. Like the Iggy Pop song implores, I had a lust for life.

And yet, somehow, I ended up masquerading as a student at Newcastle University. Enrolled in an arts degree, I spent the next two years stagnating - bored, broke and restless. When I finally broke free I was already twenty with a third of a degree and a HECS debt to my name. Alarm bells were ringing, advice given. I needed to pull up my socks, knuckle down.

Instead I went on an overseas holiday for two years.

Whether it was a bold or foolish move, I soon found I was in familiar company. Australians are among the most widely travelled people on earth - especially young Australians. Taking time off to explore the world has become a rite of passage for many of us - a trend other nations are following.

While the Gap Year is endlessly appealing for school leavers the question remains: is it any good for you?

DELAYED STUDY

Some parents fret that a Gap Year is an indulgence that will only ensure their child falls behind or swerves off the career path altogether. There is hard evidence that the opposite is more often true. Delaying tertiary study can help a young person evaluate their strengths and interests so that they choose a suitable career path (rather than being shoe-horned into a "good" degree because they got a high ATAR score). Studies have consistently shown that students perform better academically, are more engaged and much happier with their eventual career if they take a gap year. In fact, some prestigious schools, including Harvard University, now actively encourage their first-year students to not turn up for their first year.

 

Kirk Owers snowboarding in Canada.
Kirk Owers snowboarding in Canada.

 

WORK LIKE A DRAFT HORSE

A Gap Year sounds relaxing and decadent but you need to work hard and save even harder if you want to make the most of it. Young Australians can apply for work visas in the UK and Canada so they can work their way around the world. But being young and unqualified means the work is almost always unpleasant and poorly paid: washing dishes ("dish pigging"), pouring beers, waiting tables, or carrying bags. The upside is that you become a good worker by learning the value of money and self-reliance. You may even pick up a second language or a glowing reference from a French chef. More crucially, there's no better motivation to return to study than cleaning up vomit in a nightclub toilet for minimum wage.

STRUCTURE VS FREEDOM

There are lots of virtuous Gap Year programs available. You can teach English in Cambodia, help build sustainable communities in Africa, work on eco farms in Organ and much else. None would have held the slightest appeal to my 20-year-old self. I wanted to drink lustily from the cup of life. And for 18 months -when I wasn't washing dishes or drinking literally from a cup of tinned spaghetti - I did just that. I didn't get to Pamplona but ticked off all my other adventure goals and now feel I may have spared myself a midlife crisis in the process.

 

Kirk Owers at South Dakota's Badlands National Park.
Kirk Owers at South Dakota's Badlands National Park.

 

BACK TO REALITY

When I finally returned to Australia it was a bumpy landing. I still didn't have a qualification only now I was indebted to visa as well as HECS. I slipped briefly into a bit of a directionless funk. Apparently, it's known as a quarter life crisis these days. What pulled me out of it was the self-reliance and motivation I learned while working overseas. My outlook had changed. Rather than be held back by not having a qualification I felt liberated by it. I had experience, optimism and moxie. I soon found better paying, more enjoyable jobs which allowed me the time to turn my creative hobbies into paying gigs and eventually a career that I love.

THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER

Many of my travelling friends underwent a similar transformation. They found a niche they loved or which satisfied them. Some went back to study and blitzed the field. Others awakened dormant creative talents, started successful businesses or became builders or firemen. Whenever we get together the talk often returns to that time in our lives, when we explored the world and tasted absolute freedom. I used to think the window for that type of travel was clamped shut but I'm newly hopeful. I've recently read about grey nomads renting out the family home and going on irresponsible Gap Years around Europe. It sounds appealing.

Who knows? Maybe there's still a chance for me and those Pamplona bulls to finally tango?

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