The idea of taking a gap year for 2020–2021 came from discussing with my friend what classes to register for. We were reflecting on our 2020 Spring semester, the semester when COVID hit the world and I came back home to Taiwan in the middle of the semester.
There are quite a lot of things to unpack, so here’s a rough outline of how I’m going to organize this article:
01. Walkthrough of what I did & thoughts:
- Pre-Gap Year: March 2020 till summer
- Gap Year First Semester: Diverging
- Gap Year Second Semester: Converging
- Summer 2021
02. Life Lessons and Takeaways
- Rethink “should”
- There is no “right” way to live life: if you think you are only going to be happy with this one goal you really want to achieve, it could be that you haven’t discovered the other things that could make you happy
- On building deep relationships and building your community
- Quantity vs Quality
- You are never going to “have it all” but it’s okay, the world is full of abundance if you look for them
- Spending time on meta-skills
- Education doesn’t have to happen only in schools
01. Walkthrough of what I did & thoughts
Finishing half of my sophomore spring semester online made me reflect on my education and what college education meant for me. For me, college is more about the people — professors, classmates, friends, or any random cool people you meet — in a vibrant hub of serendipity and creativity.
With things being online, the “people” component of a college experience was no longer the same. Plus, the hands-on & interactive nature of a lot of my classes were just never the same being moved online. At that time, Taiwan contained COVID spread pretty well: there were no local cases and things went on normally like we were in a parallel universe.
“Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”
Most of my major learnings in college happened outside of classrooms — during conversations with friends, joining student clubs, interning, and learning things on the Internet.
No doubt the education at USC was exceptional, but with the constraint of class assignments and mandatory classes, it was not easy to follow my curiosity and explore things I’m interested in.
These thoughts grew quickly in my mind and the more I thought about it, the more a gap year in COVID-free Taiwan made sense to me.
2020 Summer: military service and planning my gap year
Most of my summer was spent in the Taiwanese army finishing my obligatory service. This was my second summer returning, so I already had a sense of what to expect. I’m not going to go into the details here, but some highlights during the 2 months were:
The army lifestyle
With a structured routine and limited Internet access, life was simple, and so did the joys in the day to day life. A chill breeze in a hot day training felt so good, occasional longer breaks meant so much to us, plain food tasted amazing after a day full of rehearsals…etc
Don’t underestimate the power of putting your work out
At the beginning of the service, an officer was looking for people to help out with the army’s publication. Because I wrote about my learnings in the army last summer and had a photography Instagram account, I was selected to help out after showing my work. This opportunity allowed me to take photographs during interesting army events and practice my mandarin writing skills most of the summer.
New environments reveal new parts of you
Besides the lifestyle difference, the biggest difference in the army would be the people I was doing my service with. With people from different social-economic backgrounds, the army environment allowed me to look at my values, strengths, flaws, and emergent behaviors under a new lens, going through trainings, rehearsals, conflicts, and conversations.
Towards the end of my service, I also received approval from my major (gap year wasn’t typically approved), so I began planning for the upcoming year…
The vision of this gap year
At one point during freshman year, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the feeling of “there’s so much to learn but so little time.” When classes were taken care of and club projects were wrapping up, another semester had flown by already. I remember telling myself, “I should have taken a gap year before college to explore, learn, and grow, so I can better take advantage of all the opportunities available in college.”
I laid down several key aspects I want to work on and explore: tangible skills, communities, habits, career paths, relationships, spirituality…etc. Writing down things and doing regular self check-ins really helped in adjusting and executing the original vision.
Gap Year First Semester: Diverging
In hindsight, I see this period of time as “diverging” — I was exploring a lot of areas and spreading myself pretty thin.
I moved to Taipei City for the wide array of things to do as well as being in a buzzing city with convenient access to Taiwan’s top student communities, tech scene, and interesting people.
Here are some of the highlights & my learnings:
Product management at a chatbot startup
Product management was a career path I’ve always wanted to explore, this experience got me a foot in the door of this world and gave me a taste of what product management means in a 20-person startup.
I learned a lot about operating projects under real-world constraints, the do’s and don’ts of running a company, the importance of workplace mentorship and culture, knowing the skills I lack, what I enjoy and do not enjoy doing…etc.
A big takeaway for me is that a good PM should be really passionate and super familiar with the product space, and that’s something I haven’t yet figured out. Also, I missed hands-on building and designing things, as a lot of product management tasks were intangible. So I thought maybe I’ll return to product management after focusing on design skills and knowing what field I want to be in.
Another career path I was thinking about was management consulting. I thought being able to “lend your brain” and get exposed to a lot of different industries sounded appealing being someone still trying to figure things out. So I applied and joined a National Taiwan University’s professional club.
The project I was assigned to was to increase the revenue of a major Taiwanese cosmetic retailer. Through the 3 months, I learned that I did not enjoy spending countless hours researching about the cosmetics industry (I don’t use any cosmetics) and trying to improve the revenue of a company I barely care about. I also did not identify with the work culture too, so I figured the consulting path might not be something for me.
I joined a student fellowship program with 24 other college students from Taiwanese universities. We meet for weekly sharings of interesting guest speakers across different industries — people talked about things like working in the finance industry, running sustainability nonprofits, practicing business law, traveling around the world, being in the travel industry during covid…etc. Overall, I found it amazing to be exposed to different people doing cool things in their field and made friends with local college students.
Life coaching nonprofit
Earlier I came across LivingOS, a nonprofit that focuses on helping people live a better life. As life coaching content really interests me, I volunteered to help kick off the offline community in Taiwan by hosting events and gatherings. Some of my learnings include how to run a lean and small team remotely, how to execute effectively, different programmings for building a community, and what life coaching is about.
Entrepreneurship class at NTU
I audited an entrepreneurship class taught by a professor who was an ex-silicon valley executive and currently runs the government-backed startup accelerator in Taiwan. It was an interesting class to learn from his insights and perspectives have been in both the US and Taiwan’s tech scene.
Realizing it might be time to converge…
Because I was diverging and committing my time to these explorations, I was a bit burned out by December. Without much time available, I wasn’t proud of the work I produce and found it hard to form deeper connections with people because I was constantly “on to the next thing” and being mindlessly busy. I realized should probably start narrowing down where I spend my time and start saying no, instead of spreading myself so thin.
Gap Year Second Semester: Converge
After the first semester, I decided to focus and do things with depth — so I took a pause from things that didn’t align with my short-term goals and vision. Equipped with my previous product management experience, I found an offer that would allow me to get my hands on the end-to-end product development process — from designing products from 0 to 1 and growing an existing product.
Product intern at a mature company’s new products team
I learned so much about developing products from 0 to 1, building company culture, managing projects, growing existing products, navigating time and resources constraints, and most importantly, making a lot of great relationships. You can read more about the learnings here.
Working full time
This is the first time I took on a full-time job. As I started working Monday to Friday, I realized time flew by so fast. It’s easy to feel drained after a full day of work, so it’s important to figure out my preferred working style and manage my energy by noticing what drains & what recharges my energy. Working full-time made me realize how precious freedom was being a college student. Can’t wait to go back to school!
First Therapy Experience
One of the highlights during this period of time was also my very first experience trying out therapy. I’ve always been interested in learning more about myself and intrigued with the idea of going to a therapist, but the “need” to try it out never prompted me to take action.
After a breakup from a relationship, I thought this could be a great opportunity to learn more about myself and improve. Around the same time, USC’s Taiwan office also hosted a career talk about a therapist alumna, so thankfully I learned about how therapy works and found a trustworthy center.
My therapy sessions undoubtedly shift my outlook on the ways I think about life, relationships, and life experiences. Also not going into too much detail here because I’ve written about my experience here.
Gap Year Summer: Rest & Reflect
Taiwan had a sudden rise of covid cases in May, so I moved back to Taichung once the lockdown was in place. Up until returning to the US, I’ve been staying at home with my family. During the few months, I realized how much having a loving family means to me: being able to live at home not needing to worry about anything, and knowing that my family would be there for me as I explore the journey of life. “Unconditional love” is something so rare and beautiful in the course of life.
Habits, productivity, and mental health
Staying at home means more time available for myself, so I tried out different habits and productivity methods to find what works best for me. James Clear’s Atomic Habits was super helpful to understand how to break bad habits and form good ones.
I started taking daily walks after dinner to organize my thoughts and check in with myself towards the end of the day. I’ve found walking helped me think clearer and generate ideas. I’ve also found audio journals helpful to think clearer during my walks.
I got the idea one day about how I should document my grandparents’ stories for my future kids and grandkids. How interesting would it be if I could check out video interviews of my great grandparents about what life was like, their stories, and life advice for young people like me? So I wrote down a few questions about life and interviewed my grandparents. The experience was amazing, seeing how cute my grandparents were when they were recording and sharing their stories.
As I reflected on this past year and my experiences through writing, I’ve found myself drawn to creating things. I also found a new interest my visualizing cool ideas and quotes I came across in minimal designs. Still playing around with the idea and want to experiment with how this turns out, check out here if you are interested!
Major Lessons and Takeaways
I experienced a huge motivation slump in March 2020 when school moved online. The pandemic is a rare Black Swan event that made us all rethink the way things were. Things we took for granted were no longer valid. I realized how unpredictable the world is and thus went down a rabbit hole of “if things are so unsure, what am I working towards? How do I know what I want is actually what I want?”
This made me more aware of a lot of the shoulds I tell myself: the things I should be doing as a student, what kind of person I should become, what I should spend my time on…etc. These shoulds boiled down to the expectations ingrained in us by either society, media, school, or family. If we don’t examine and unpack them mindfully, we could easily follow these expectations without asking ourselves if these are what we really want in life.
There is no “right” way to live life: if you think you are only going to be happy with this one goal you really want to achieve, it could be that you haven’t discovered the other things that could make you happy
Before the gap year, I used to think what “success” meant for me as a college student in my world would be intern at Big Tech and then work for a great tech company/ startup. As it turned out, life is not a linear process and success isn’t just a “either this or that,” and the definition of success was just based on my college circle, which is a bubble.
During this gap year, I’ve met so many people from all walks of life, each one of them having completely different socio-economic backgrounds, industries, life goals, and worldviews. A lot of them are not on the so-called “successful” path I thought I wanted, yet they are so fulfilled and happy. This gave me a sense of how big the world is and how there are countless paths available. There is usually more than one path we can take, it’s just that we are not aware of the possibilities and are open to them.
On building deep relationships and building your community
I came into the gap year thinking I am going to build a lot of great friendships and people, so I should involve myself in as many communities as possible. However, a bit into the first semester, I realized it’s simply not possible to make deep friendships by spreading myself so thin in a lot of areas. New, close relationships in adulthood come from similar values and interests, continual exposure to each others’ mundane life updates, and shared experience of going through things together with a gradually increased level of trust and healthy dependency. Also, the way to look at deep relationships should be more about “quality,” not “quantity.”
Quantity vs Quality
It’s great to spread yourself thin as you are still exploring things you might be interested in, but that’s not a good strategy if you’ve had a rough idea of what direction you want to go. We only have finite time in our lives, and it’s where we choose to focus our time would we see the results.
In the first semester, I committed my time to too many different things and found that it’s hard to produce quality results in personal learning, work, and relationships. Also when you lose the interest to work on specific projects, it could cause you to suffer mentally. So it’s better to keep things essential.
You are never going to “have it all” but it’s okay, the world is full of abundance if you look for them
It’s super easy to have FOMO — fear of missing out — in college. It could be the class everyone’s saying good things about, the class everyone’s talking about, or the party that everyone seems to be going to. Life could be pretty stressful if we don’t want to miss out on a single thing, which is also not possible.
Sometime during September, I came across a mentorship program that seemed amazing, but the deadline to apply had already passed. As I’ve put into a lot of time and energy into planning out my gap year to make the most out of it, I was a bit disappointed in missing this great opportunity. This made me realize it’s not really likely to not miss out on anything.
This realization was liberating because I was no longer stressed out by the FOMO feeling of the need to capture all opportunities. We really live in a world of abundance, so if a door was closed to you, be patient and look out for another window open for you, especially if you are being proactive and optimistic.
Spending time on meta-skills
I purposefully spent time on learning “meta-skills” — soft skills like learning how to learn, how to think better, how to make better decisions, how to build a better productivity system…etc. These skills are normally not taught in school yet so crucial to be successful in whatever we want to do. Good habits, learning systems, productivity mindsets, and self-assessment could get you really far in improving any aspect of life.
“Hard skills get you in, soft skills get you far” is also something I’ve noticed working in tech companies. When applying to more technical jobs like an engineer or designer, you probably could rely on your hard skills to get you the job. However, after getting the job, your soft skills then become crucial in getting things done by building relationships, aligning team members, or convincing stakeholders.
Education doesn’t have to happen only in schools
I think this year is an experiment of how you don’t have to be in school to get a good education. With access to the Internet, there are just abundant learning materials, people, and space to improve ourselves. School is the traditional route of how people get exposed to education, but it’s not the only way. Medium like books, clubs, internships, and Internet communities are excellent ways to get involved and learn nowadays.
School is about to start as I’m writing this paragraph. It still feels surreal right now, back in school after more than a year. Things feel so familiar yet so different. I feel like I’m much more in tune with my inner self after this year. Even though there’s probably still a lot of things I need to work on, I think my current state of mind is not bad! Really looking forward to how the rest of my student life unfolds! 🌱
daily views of the sky & sunset from home
Thank you for reading this far, this is really a quite long article. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback from any of the things you read! :) Have a great day!