The Life Changing Lessons of a Gap Year: Michelle Zhang

When my parents were still skeptical about the idea of a gap year, they would ask me, “What do you want to gain from it?” I told them I wanted to learn from real life what a classroom couldn’t teach me. They asked, “What are you going to learn?” I couldn’t answer. You don’t know what the world will teach you until you go see for yourself. It’s different for everyone. The universe has a way of revealing to us the lessons and wisdom we personally need to learn the most. After six months, I now know mine.


It’s November 6th, the first birthday I’ve ever spent away from home. I loved life in Guatemala and didn’t expect anything special. But before dinner my ten year old host sister comes sprinting up the stairs, excitedly yelling, “Michelle! Michelle!” She blindfolds me and walks me to the kitchen. “Feliz cumpleanos!” I open my eyes to a room lit up by cake candles and the smiles of my host family and the seven other Spanish students living with me. Everyone eats, jokes around, and takes pictures, later all whacking at a giant pinata. We’re the most random bunch of people of different ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds. Yet it feels like home. Each goes around wishing me all that they cherish in their own lives: adventure, love, luck, good food, good people. Happiness is expecting nothing and overflowing with gratefulness for everything.


It’s less than a week before I go home for the holidays. I’m sweating in a dusty parka five times too big for me, my eyes puffy with exhaustion. I sit on the summit of an inactive volcano, watching its active neighbor erupt into the early morning sky. The neon pink sun peeks out over the horizon, stretching its rays over an endless sea of clouds and indigo blue mountains. It tints the towering column of volcanic ash a fiery orange. I’m facing the vista in silence, overwhelmed by the beauty. Tears rolls down my cheeks. I hear the clicking of cameras, people scrambling for photos, but my phone remains in my pocket until the sun has fully risen. This kind of beauty is too sacred to be thinking about how to prove my life is cool on Instagram right now. How many magic moments do we dull because our ego is scrambling to exploit them for “likes”? Happiness is being present and losing your self consciousness in the wondrous world.

Enjoying Life…

It’s January of the new year. Oaxaca, Mexico is teeming with sophisticated restaurants, fancy mezcal cocktails, and quality artisan goods—things anyone who loves treating themselves would be all over. But that’s not me. I prefer cheap second hand clothes and public transportation. I buy only what I need. When I travel, I beeline for the cheapest, dingiest looking restaurant with the most locals in it. Yet here I am for the second time this week, sitting across my friend Rosie from London, looking at a menu with dishes that cost more than a week’s groceries. When we met, I knew Rosie and I were opposites—she lives for the finer things in life—but didn’t judge her for it, or expect anything. A month later, we were inseparable friends. I didn’t judge myself either when I started ordering both a cocktail and dessert at nice restaurants or bought a woven lantern from a hippie couple because looking at it made me happy. Different people bring out different sides of ourselves, and there is something to be learned from everyone we meet. Through Rosie, I learned that it’s okay to treat myself. Happiness is shamelessly, unreservedly enjoying life.

I’ve never felt so much happiness as I’ve felt this year, and I realized it’s because I am doing what I want. We don’t realize how many of our actions are to please others and assuage insecurity rather than spark happiness.

Why do we deprive ourselves of doing what makes us happy?

Because of money and time? Because of societal pressure? What is the use of any of those if they’re not contributing to our happiness? I understand I am extremely privileged to ask these questions. I am aware that for many, affording bare necessities is a daily challenge. I am aware that for many, societal pressure is a heavy, complex weight on their back.

But if you’re reading this, assess your life.
What are you doing that isn’t contributing to your happiness? Really think hard. If you have the privilege to replace that with something you love, why don’t you?

Especially in the U.S., we get stuck in what we “should” do: succeed in university, find a stable job, make good money, take out loans to buy a house, a car, settle down, and on and on. If you’ve done all this, and you’re content, then perfect. But damn. How many of us are stepping on this conveyor belt without even questioning if it’s what we want?

Throughout these six months I met dozens of people living an “unstable” life because that’s what makes them feel alive. They travel and sleep in pimped out vans, making and selling art. They are on an indefinitely long sabbatical, exchanging work for lodging and food. They work odd jobs around the world until they have enough money to take off backpacking again. These are extreme examples of a lifestyle not suitable for everyone. But my point is that these are normal people. They aren’t rich or retired, just daring enough to do what makes them happy. Seeing their lives, I see fewer limitations in mine.

This is the big secret that I learned:

I am allowed and able to live how I want, not just this year, but for the rest of my life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *