Interviewer: “What were you doing in 2002 between your job at Smith Barney and Citibank? There seems to be a gap here. Was there a problem?”
How many of you have gaps on your resume? How many of you hear alarm bells ring when you’re recruiting a candidate and find a gap on their resume? What work crimes do you fear they’ve committed? Are they unstable, were they a bust at their last gig, a burnout, couldn’t hack the pressure, can’t handle office politics?
As a former hiring manager in corporate America I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve gone there. I spent 20 years working for ‘the man’ without a single gap in my resume until, gasp, a year ago. I have to go back to my time living in Australia to remember a mindset and culture where taking time off was considered healthy and productive.
Some years ago, I was watching a television interview of a business idol of mine, Richard Branson, of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic fame. I’ve read his book ‘Losing my Virginity,’ always watch his interviews and follow his business and personal adventures. I’d love to give you his verbatim quote that ranks as my all-time-favorite but I’ve never been able to find it again. To paraphrase, he said something along the lines of “I don’t ever hire someone who doesn’t have at least one unexplainable gap on their resume.” Delivered with his usual devilish smile of course.
Heard of the gap year before? If you’re American there’s a good chance you haven’t. The modern origins come from students in Europe taking a year off between high school and college to explore the world – often working their way through their travel. The point is to expand your mind. Here’s an inspiring example I was reading recently on The Guardian Unlimited about Anna Hingley, 24, a British veterinary nurse who took a year off to ride across Australia on a horse with her boyfriend. She’s reportedly the first woman to make the trek on one of our equine friends. My mum would point out that Robyn Davidson, the woman who trekked across 1,700 miles of Australia with her four camels and her trusty dog in the 70’s did much the same thing (Mum would be so pleased if you read Robyn’s inspiring adventure Tracks).
“It’s been tough both physically and mentally but there was never a moment when I thought ‘what the hell am I doing out here?” said Hingley. The couple actually met during a gap year that Hingley spend in Australia in 2004.
Although variations of the gap year have existed for years, it was Europe where the trend really got going in the 90’s. The practice spread to graduate students and has now become more popular with regular cubicle warriors and executives who want to get in on the fun. As an American who lived abroad in Australia I’ve had a chance to be exposed to Aussie (and by extension European) ideals of things like long-service leave, sabbaticals and plain old fashioned long vacations, something we just don’t seem to be able to comprehend here in the U.S.
By my nature and experience I consider myself patriotic. Having said that, there are things about our wonderful country that, well…suck. I’ll give you one of my favorites: our attitudes about work productivity. OK, I know we’re one of the most productive nations in the world and all that is great but we’re living in a different economy now, one that values ideas, and the best ideas don’t all come about from beating your brains in with 80-hour work weeks. Don’t misread me, I’m not saying hard work isn’t a critical ingredient. I’m a self-confessed workaholic but I believe if you’re going to work smarter at out-of-the-box work (which is what our information economy in no uncertain terms rewards) then don’t you think it pays to actually work with some fresh content? We train people on how to fill out forms more efficiently and manage every last minute of our time, yet we often fail to fuel our imagination with new life-engaging experiences. If you’re looking for inspiration from your favorite strip mall book store, it’s probably better than your flat screen TV – but if you want to find something more than inspiration, step away from the strip mall and go on a trek.
In life, I have found a great deal of application in a famous educator’s words, Dr. Maria Montessori (creator of The Montessori method), who believed that, it’s hard to learn from an experience you haven’t had.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.” –Dr. Maria Montessori
I think it would be easy to misinterpret my criticism of U.S. business as a critique of our record of innovation – and I’m not. I believe America is innovative because we are so willing to experiment as a society, we’re willing to admit when we’re wrong, and even more willing to pick ourselves up, dust off the dirt, and get on with it. The point of my article is to suggest that we haven’t yet wandered into this area of experimentation – gap years – and it’s overdue. We’re late to this party and it’s about time we got our ass in gear and started…goofing off with the best of them!
What I do expect is for U.S. companies to come up with some of the best thinking yet on the gap year to date. This isn’t misplaced patriotism talking; it’s based on seeing and experiencing unbridled American capitalism from the viewpoint of a foreigner and up close and personal as a participant in the American economy. But, we’re not immune from stupidity, bad ideas or a lack of imagination – we’ve got a long track record of those as well. Remember the U.S. auto industry in the 70’s and 80’s? Who took American ideas, manufacturing process and original styling and used them to beat up on us? Japan. It was our ultimate response that was unabashedly American. The U.S. auto industry copied the Japanese – copying us. Then, we applied those hard learned lessons all over corporate America. The formula for our innovation is one part inspiration, one part perspiration and one part execution. What I’m saying is that things like the gap year are fuel for the inspiration part of the innovation formula. Fuel the imagination and creativity results. Once you’ve got the idea it’s time to apply the 80-100 hour work weeks to hone the idea to a diamond-like luster.
Recently, we’ve all been discussing baby boomers and what their coming wave of early retirements will mean to business. Before they all return to working part-time as consultants many will fulfill life long goals to travel and see parts of the world that they only dreamed of while struggling through the monotony of their full time jobs. As we’ve read, they’ve got money, skills, and wisdom and soon, more time to think about what they’ve accomplished and what they still want to do. I think the baby boomers that go out and live some dreams before launching their consulting gigs will be the best hires – hands down.
Think of the gap year as a little slice of retirement, but at 23, 28, 37, and 45. You’re young, still at the peak of your faculties and most productive years and you’re acquiring knowledge about people, how they do business, what makes them tick, and what they think about your own world. It’s best practice research for life. There’s nothing like being confronted with a foreigner’s ignorance or misinterpretation of your own social, cultural and business values to make you realize your own ignorance of the world.
In an economy where ideas are money, it’s not hard to imagine a future where gap’ers are heralded as the cream of the crop. One day, I think we’ll glance at the resume on our screen and think to ourselves, what was he thinking, working 15 straight years like that? He must completely lack any imagination and creativity. We’ll sit across from job candidates and ask them what they were doing with no unexplainable gaps in between their jobs. I hope I’m there to see that.
Oh, you want travel advice as well? When I find myself in a foreign place, culture shock coursing through my veins, I try to remember these words. That and a Coke, or local Coca-Cola equivalent, can take me a long way.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken