Like Youth, Are Gap Years Wasted on the Young? My Super Sabbatical

I always wanted to take a Gap Year; it took me decades to do so

I always wanted to take a Gap Year; it took me decades to do so

Maybe it’s the travel year abroad that I wanted but never had—before, during, or after college—that made me obsessed for decades with the idea of taking a gap year.

But I put that yearning on the back burner when I left the East Coast in my early twenties for adventures in the American West, parts of which were still pretty Wild back then. Long before people buzzed about follow your passion, my husband Randy and I followed our dream and moved to Aspen, Colorado in 1987 to start Aspen Magazine, and live the mountain life.

Many of our college friends lived in Manhattan and had traditional jobs in publishing, finance, law. While our city friends often said they wish they could trade places with us, they weren’t willing to take the risks we took. And risks there were. While iconic, Aspen back then was more funky small town than glamorous St. Moritz. Outside of seasonal jobs like ski instructing or waiting tables, jobs were few. We weren’t trust funders like many of our friends there. Our families thought we were crazy.

I served as the magazine's Editor in Chief, and my husband as Publisher. We played hard, but we worked hard too. In my forties, I tried to plan a short sabbatical in 2000 to write and gain some mid-life perspective. As fate would have it, that year my life was turned upside down. Out of the blue my healthy, athletic husband was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Within a year he was dead.

What an emotionally, physically, and financially draining year it was. Devastated, I desperately needed time off to grieve. But with a small business to run and medical bills that went beyond our insurance coverage to pay, there was no time off; there wasn’t even time for a mid-life crisis. 

After my husband's sudden death, I took on even more roles, without shedding old ones. Business was good until 2007 when the great recession collided with the digital revolution—two forces beyond my personal control.  Despite stereotypes of the town’s wealth, Aspen was not immune to the recession. I had created a great brand, but with the steep decline in print advertising revenues, the print magazine business for most publishers, especially small ones like ours, was daunting; many small publications were forced to close. By the end of 2012, for a variety of reasons I was more than ready to sell. 

I’d experienced an adventurous, satisfying 25 years of doing my dream job in a place I love. I cut my three year contract with the new owner to one year. I was ready to hit the slow button. I took on a few freelance projects, renovated my home, skied, biked, hiked—and went under the social radar.

Then on a trip to my sister’s in the Midwest, I was shocked when she described me as “retired.”

I was shocked by the word “Retired”

I was shocked by the word “Retired”

The word “retirement” comes from the Middle French word retirer, meaning to retreat, to withdraw, to go off into seclusion. Up until the 18th century, people worked until they died, either on a farm, or for the rich, managing their estates. The idea of retirement was invented in Germany in the late 19th century. In the U.S. pensions for municipal employees were introduced in the 1880s, and eventually offered across industries, with 65 the official retirement age. 

From its inception, the notion of retirement aligned with life expectancy. These days the 20th century idea of retirement as a macro event is in full disruption. As Business Insider recently put it, the notion of retirement as a one time event of ceasing all work—"you’re born, go to school, get a job, retire, die" is obsolete. In the 21st century, life expectancy will now most likely be extended: it's mind boggling to think we might live to 110 or 120. 

I may be done with my career in traditional publishing, I thought, but I wasn’t retired from storytelling or living life to the fullest. But before I could begin any new chapter I was finally going to take—whatever you want to call it—that adult gap year, that super sabbatical, that mini-retirement, that time out for creative personal projects and travel that I had always dreamt about. 

Though I made my decision to take an extended sabbatical years ago, according to Conde Nast Traveler a new travel trend is burned-out billionaires “turbocharging” the idea of a gap year. One tech entrepreneur travelled for two years by private jet to 66 countries, spending in the seven figures. He even lived for two weeks in the Kalahari (where I have explored) with the San and hunted animals with a bow and arrow with the tribespeople. He had the means to hire an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and BBC guide to make a documentary of his exploits.

My super sabbatical has been less grand than those cited in the CNT story, and certainly less expensive, but nevertheless I created the break from burnout and the time and space for personal transformation that I was seeking. To the surprise of my friends and family—and even myself—I moved, just for a year I said, to do a deep dive of my favorite city, Manhattan, which I had only known as a tourist in hotels or a friend’s guest room.

Being my own boss most of my adult life I am a self-directed learner and doer. Rather than go back to school, which I had considered, I made the City’s cultural offerings—museums, jazz clubs, classical music, opera, theatre, talks, and architectural tours—my classroom. I invested in a Sony digital camera and became a flaneur. And I traveled constantly. Though I was technically not adept, I went on photo workshops in India, Oaxaca, Ireland, which stimulated me to take photography classes later in Manhattan. I now have a new passion that adds endless value to my life and work.

These days my personal hashtag is: #rewiredontretire. I wish I could claim credit for coining the term, but I discovered it in the book Wisdom @Work: the Making of a Modern Elder by hospitality entrepreneur and marketing guru Chip Conley.  Some people don’t like the word “elder,” but it's definitely not the same as elderly. 

A book with valuable insights about aging and youth

A book with valuable insights about aging and youth

The book looks at growing older while staying younger. The author makes the case for wisdom not being wasted on the old any more than youth being wasted on the young. Age diverse workplaces are smart business, an idea that fascinates me and I hope we’ll see more intergenerational work models in our society.

And speaking of youth, millennials are already clueing into the boomer new reality of working longer. Eighty percent plan continued employment beyond 65, according to Money magazine. But millennials are also being smarter than my generation in seizing upon the idea of adult gap years, or "mini-retirements"—meaningful respites throughout one’s career to get more out of life. The concept was conceived and popularized by author Timothy Ferris in his book The Four Hour Workweek, published in 2007. 

Those living longer will want to participate in the economy—either because you financially need to, or you have made the choice to stay useful and purposeful. Stories abound of people who remain active and happy by doing work they enjoy into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

With new ideas about youthful aging and work paradigm shifts in mind, Conley’s even started a school in Baja, Mexico—the Modern Elder Academy—to help one “to reset, restore, and repurpose your life” during life/work transitions. Universities like Stanford and Harvard for instance offer programs for boomers looking to reinvent second or third acts with new direction.

So here I am, starting back to work with my blog. I’ve come to realize that nothing’s ever wasted at any age when you take time out for renewal and experiences that take you out of your comfort zone.  As my extended Gap Year comes to a close it’s made re-rethink my notions of time, age, work, and what I’m capable of. Endings are never quite what they seem. Or as Meister Eckhart once wisely said: “And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings—” even if you have turned 65.