Lessons from my gap year

Sean Lynch
Dec 24, 2016 · 6 min read

2016 was unique. It ended up being my gap year, my first year of contiguous unemployment (at least in the conventional sense) since high school. I saw corners of the world I’d never thought I’d visit. I lived in cities that have captured my imagination for years. I worked with great people, caught up with old friends, made amazing new ones, and welcomed new members of the extended family into the world. It’s a privilege to be able to take a year off for self-directed exploration and I’ve been constantly thankful for the luck to do it.

To set the stage for those unfamiliar: I spent this year in a combination of international travel, living in new cities, while working on a new startup (a longer separate post on lessons from that adventure still to come) and consulting. The experiences I’ve collected this year have shaped my view of the world and more importantly, how I conduct myself within it. Now that we’re at the end of 2016, I wanted to distill out the things I learned.

Own less, do more

When I left SF in January, I put all my possessions into a storage unit. Returning to it in May, I knew I had a bunch of things I had no use for. I’ve spent the rest of the year slowly getting rid of the stuff I no longer need and prioritizing the small set of things that are truly important. If you’re reading this, chances are, you’ve already read Peak Things and Post Things, but if not and you’re interested in learning more, check them out.

Despite writing at length on “Own less”, it’s really the “Do more” that had the positive impact on life. I feel a lot more empowered to go adventure. This year has been chock-full of big trips and weekend wanders. Even when I was consulting, I snuck weekends up the coast or in the bush so I didn’t feel like I was compromising. It’s a much better work-life balance and one I think should be sustainable long term.

Solo trip to Olympic National Park

… And it’s okay to do it solo

I started this year with a one-person romp around New Zealand. I hiked through nearly a dozen National Parks in 2016, most of them on my own. I’ve spent a lot of my life waiting for someone else to sign up for the same silly adventure and missed out on quite a few of them because I couldn’t rally the troops. 2016 taught me not to wait for a group and instead be comfortable with striking out on my own. Even created a new hashtag for it: #tableforone

In fairness, this comes with a very real dose of loneliness. There’s something fundamental about the joy of sharing stories with others and reminiscing about them later and I still long for it. Now I’m just more aware that it comes with the territory and treat it as a cost for being able to do more.

It’s worth pointing out that despite this realization in my personal life, I didn’t get to the point of being comfortable with striking out solo when it came to starting a company. I’ll need to think on this one more.

“Bit by bit, little by little”

In April, I did the Inca Trail with Matt and Katie, and a diverse group of other friendly faces on the trip. None of us were seasoned hikers but we all climbed to the 13,000 ft pass without exception. Our perpetually positive guide is responsible for that. Every time we set out onto the trail, he’d say “bit by bit, little by little” and our insurmountable goal was slowly but surely bested.

On the work side of my life, I spent a lot of time talking with folks starting and working in startups. And one the themes that came up again and again was continued, incremental progress. Goals that seem untenable can eventually be met with slow, steady improvement over a long period of time through the magic of compound growth. I’m not sure my guide thought much about the phrase outside his tour groups but it’s echoed in my ears multiple times this year.

Zoom out

This is a hard one to articulate so I’ll try do it with a story.

There was a moment at Burning Man where I was sitting around with the camp watching the sunset. The camp is a very tight knit group and I was feeling like an outsider so was stressed as a result (definitely not their fault, a completely self-inflicted stress). So I went for a little walk, and BM being the ridiculous place that it is, climbed to the top of a four story tower where I could see out over the whole city blinking and oscillating off to the horizon. I could also see our little camp and the exact spot I had been sitting just a few minutes ago. That little problem was suddenly not relevant at all in this larger perspective and I immediately felt more content.

Looking back, I’ve realized that I’ve been in this situation a billion times in both my work and personal life. It’s easy to establish a frame of reference that limits you to a very local perspective. You know the feeling. Suddenly thinking about all the minor bullshit at work (who’s getting promoted) or in personal life (who’s sleeping with who) occupies way too much of your time. All of this is minor, temporary, and inconsequential for the rest of the world.

Realizing that I’m in control of how I set the perspective in life has let me control what needs focus, and what doesn’t need the obsessive weight and worry I’d have put into it in the past. I need to frequently remind myself of this, but zooming out has let me walk away from some of the stresses that would follow me everywhere.

Opening up

Going through the break up last year taught me how much further I needed to go on this front, and “Open Up” was explicitly one of my resolutions for 2016. Surprisingly though, the place that taught me the value of it was New York City. I found its residents to be remarkably open to striking up a conversation and having meaningful conversations with strangers, stark contrast to how I navigated the world in SF. I carried it forward, and met some crazy wonderful amazing new friends in my travels and opened deeper friendships with existing friends in SF as a result. I’ve got more to go on this front too but it’s made interactions with the other humans in the world a lot more enjoyable for an introvert like myself.

2016: Year of the Buffalo Plaid

So what’s up for 2017?

Great question. Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last month. I gave myself 2016 to pursue starting another company and I’m sad to report I haven’t been successful on that front. But, I have learned to prioritize some of the other important things in my life including family, the outdoors, and travel.

So early next year, I’ll be moving to Seattle permanently, or as permanent as any of my moves have been in the past. I’m not sure that Seattle perfect for me, but I am sure I’ll regret staying in SF for the rest of my life. And at least while I’ve got the freedom, got to make use of it.

2016 has been a true blessing and an important milestone in my life. So let me finish by saying an inadequate Thank You! to all the people that made it such an amazing adventure this year. The folks that opened their homes, dinner tables, spare bedrooms, offices, campfires, roadtrips, and more importantly their hearts and lives. I owe a great cumulative debt to the world thanks to all of your generosity and I’m looking forward to paying it back and forward (in addition to incurring a bit more).

Sean Lynch

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