The Gap Year, or the 'Gap Yah' as those of you who are partial to viral videos might prefer to call it, is seen by some as a middle class indulgence. An excuse for recent graduates to prolong their freedom before attempting to settle into the 'real world'. And they might be correct to a certain extent. But, for some, it really can be life changing. For me it certainly was.
Our teenage years can be an awkward time. We're trying to find out who we are as we move towards adulthood. If you were anything like me you just wanted to fit in. By the time I reached middle school I knew who I was. I was Andy. Andy who did sports, Andy who had curtains, Andy who hung out with that group of kids. This was who I was, this was who I was accepted as by others, so this was me.
Growing up, any changes to the norm, or what your peers believed to be the norm for you, seemed to invoke mass hysteria. I clearly remember the Monday morning that I came to school and I'd cut my long center parted hair down to a slightly more on trend short back and sides. I may as well have come to school wearing a dress and calling myself Andrea for the reaction it caused. These people that I had grown up with, some for over a decade, had a certain perception of me, and to avoid any conflict or embarrassment I was happy to go along with it.
This is why a Gap Year was so important for me.
As I came to the end of my studies I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that I wasn't ready to start a career, because I didn't know what path to take. I'd always wanted to work in 'showbiz', but that wasn't who I was. I'd never done anything like that. I played sports. All that razzmatazz was for the kids in the drama club.
I decided to go traveling alone. Ok, I didn't decide. The two friends I had planned to go with dropped out. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Leaving home to travel to foreign countries where I had no idea of the currency let alone the language was one of the scariest things I've ever done. But also the most rewarding.
During my travels I met lots of people. To begin with I latched on to anyone who would have me. Anyone, just so I wasn't alone. But gradually, as I meet more and more people, I began to identify what I liked in a person, what made me want to spend time with someone.
Relationships when you're traveling can be very transient. You can meet someone for an hour, an evening, a week or several months. You can choose to move off in a different direction or travel with them. For the first time I wasn't with a group of people because our parents lived in the same village, or we chose the same university. I could truly choose who I wanted to spend time with and who not to.
I began to identify characteristics of the people I chose to form lasting relationships with. We laughed at the same things, we saw the world in a similar way, we had similar views on life. Through them, I began to see certain traits in myself. I began to see what made me really me.
As my travels went on I began to feel more at ease with these new discoveries about 'me'. I began to realize what I wanted to do with my life. This new found confidence in myself allowed me to believe I could do whatever I wanted to, regardless of what I'd done in the past. . Maybe I could work in 'show business'
Five years after I returned my Gap Year, it's impact is still evident in my life. I moved to London within a month of being back and secured my first job in TV. Most of my friends in London are people I met on my year away, or people I've met through them.
With the current economic crisis , even fewer people are able to take this rather indulgent break. But I can't recommend highly enough taking some time in your life to step away for a moment and dig deep inside yourself to see if you are being you, the person you want to be, or if you're living up to the preconceptions and limitations imposed by those around you.
Follow Andy Shepherd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andyjshep