For more than 60 years, summer time has been my favorite time. Days are long, playtime is abundant, and the colors and smells of nature are intense. I take off and celebrate my birthday for three days because it’s always been that way, even before I went to kindergarten. Fourth of July holidays always make my ice cream and cake days at least three, sometimes four days in a row.
This year the playtime and socialization is different. As a nation we failed to achieve the same lower numbers of COVID-19 that other, highly-educated, economically-sound countries got to after the virus first stepped into their populations. This July it looks like we will hunker down, even lower, in shelter. COVID spread is much worse than the horrors of April.
Right now, 2020 looks like a year that will last 20 months instead of 12.
Maybe the time is right to officially start your gap year. Mine started in 2019 and wrapped up in February 2020.
Oh boy, am I glad I took a year to prepare and think about best scenarios and worst scenarios. I took myself and our business through the same Designing Your Future work we’ve done for many clients. You can’t predict the future, but you can design your future. You can think through and commit to writing what your responses might be for every scenario you can imagine. We created many scenarios and include extremes–from Win-The-Lottery scenarios to the unprecedented and unthinkable.
Debbie Weil and husband Sam took a Gap Year After 60 in 2013. From that, they created a program, blog, podcasts and great community for people in midlife and beyond who want to explore, to reinvent, to find purpose and to figure out what comes next—and why. Debbie is on a mission to end the tyranny of learn/earn/retire as life’s stages. It’s all about relevance and that mattered when she introduced it six years ago. It matters more in the new age we are calling “unprecedented time.”
In those first decades after college graduation, Debbie Weil and I were both in Washington, DC—both journalists, writers, business communications professionals. I’ve stayed in touch and read her books because she keeps showing up with what you want next, right before you realized you wanted it.
At the end of 2018, as my firm celebrated 40 years of growth, brilliant clients and incomparable expertise, it was time to pause and figure out what’s next—and why. Three large contracts all had ending points in the 2018. The choice was either keep doing what we’ve always done or invest in our future, rest, reflect, reconsider what 2019-2029 might be.
Like Debbie, I have no place in my brain for the word “retirement” and I am constantly curious about what’s next, what’s better, and why. I go futher than Debbie and would recommend a gap year for anyone who wants to live to 50 and beyond. This “time out” would have been fabulous when I was 35 and thought I knew everything. All problems, struggles and life lessons since 35, I discovered in Debbie’s writing, did not have to cost so much of my life and energy.
One secret of the gap year is that you are totally in control of your time, energy, thoughts and decisions. You can extend your gap year for as long as it takes to figure out all of your “what’s next” moves. We could have figured that out sooner by noticing Debbie and Sam are still grooving in their gap, since 2013.
The most important thing I learned in my gap year is almost nobody cares about me or what I think. A lot of people care immensely about how I make them feel and what insights I might provide that they can make their own. They care about my love of writing, joy of listening, desire for learning what’s in their big brains and then turning that into a story that has a beginning, middle and end.
For the rest of this year and as long as it takes to end the global pandemic with an announcement of zero deaths I’ll keep learning, working, and making the most out of every minute and every conversation.
If any of the following 10 insights float your boat, too, please make them your own.
When you have a question, take another 10 minutes to ask what is the real question behind that? Drill down three or four questions to get to the core of real problem or real desire. Go back to questions posed just a year ago and find better answers—facts and truths, not guesses or loose notions.
The pandemic is severe and shocking to many systems. There’s more disturbing unknowns. That intensifies the opportunities to double down on learning and practicing new skills.
Now we have months to plant a garden, bring back the glory of landscaped outdoor expanses, plus spend more time in that room we filled with floor to ceiling shelves and turned into a library. Gardens and books help you return to basic questions that require answers, lest you pay the high price of a life unexamined and toxic with regrets.
The founder of our firm was a farmer. Also, he was successful at trade association leadership and industry-education, award-winning programs. Still, the farming lessons were evident in our Information Age, knowledge work, such as, always show up prepared and professional. Some years the farm does well, prices are right and you end up with cash reserves. Some years there are many events you have no control over such as floods, harvest crew scheduling and global economics. That’s why you need to always feed cash reserves, live within your means and keep doing all the work necessary for the next crop, the next cycle, the next opportunity to greet the daily sunshine.
The one thing we give away more freely than money and other assets is time. That stops now and I’m through with stupid. No longer give time to people who ask for $10,000 of original thinking and work, just for them, without pay. They called it a proposal. I call it lessons learned. The rest of my time in life goes to those who value it, as much as I do.
Take time for books and learning. Remember how great it felt when you graduated from the children’s section to the adult library. Remember how much fun your brain has solving problems and learning from others, dead and alive, through books. Do audio book if that’s your thing. Not talking about more screen time and digital content. If you have thousands of books in your own library, spend time with them, curled up in that comfortable chair you put near the big window with the perfect light for reading.
Unemployment can happen to all of us. Just because you get a regular paycheck that looks the same from payday to payday only means you are one paycheck away from unemployment. Clients can suddenly decide they just don’t want to continue for reasons having nothing to do with you. The truth is customers don’t go away; instead, they just go somewhere else. They are still buying. Every day and even on Christmas, someone is open for business. We just have to figure out how to meet the customer where they are now and what solves the presenting problem, today.
When you go into isolation to figure stuff out, you feel an aloneness that is new. It’s an intense contrast to a life where every day fills with people-pleasing, constant socialization. Solitude becomes calming when you learn that alone is what you wanted all the time and never spoke up for yourself. It’s true. We crave the company of others and we also crave being left alone, completely, to rest, renew, reflect, understand who we really are and discover what great gift or service to humanity is unique to you and, therefore, desired by others.
If it takes the whole gap year, this is the best place to be. The more you stop being someone else or the person you think someone expects you to be, the quicker you clear out the head trash that causes you to spin your wheels and lose hours you’ll never get back. The more normal your are and the more you do what interests you, while, at the same time, fascinating or serving someone else, the better it gets. Life is equal parts you and everyone else. But you come first; otherwise, you can’t help others. Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others with their oxygen mask.
You can learn the blessing of anger. It tells you there was a boundary which either you created or someone else created and you lost your creative spark. You lost yourself or your purpose. We are endless energy. We are physical matter held together by energy. There’s always more options than you take time to imagine or research.
“In the same way that you need to stop talking to hear what others are saying, you need to stop thinking to find what life is all about.” — Alan Watts
Whatever your age, consider now the opportunity for a gap year. For yourself and for your company or organization, uncover your capacity to be you and lead true, and you will be unstoppable.