About a year ago, I told myself I wanted to take a gap year, the acclaimed year-long “break” away from school. Prior to my adventurous choice, I had read a number of articles, all of which explained the reasons why a graduating high school student should consider taking a gap year before attending college. In doing so, I pictured all the grandiose trips I could take, all the people I could meet and all the books I could read. Most importantly, I imagined all the time that I would have to grow and learn about myself outside of the classroom. The underlying theme behind each article was Freedom. A year away from the classroom was your ticket to do what you want to do, which sequently helps you filter out potential new passions, or things you didn’t know that you didn’t like.
This idea of freedom is what sparked my appetite for the gap year. I ended up telling my parents about my decision and to no surprise they were shocked. Ultimately, it ended up being one of the best choices I have ever made.
For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, which set me apart from peers in school a bit. My early years in high school were spent learning how to build things; more specifically, companies. I had a fascination with innovation and the people who were able to grow ideas, found companies from them, and pioneer new industries. My passion enabled me to do something similar, which led to me founding a company during my junior year of high school: The Storybook Factory.
Amazingly, I had the opportunity to take part in a cutting-edge program called the Innovation Class. This class, taught by edTech expert Don Wettrick, reshaped the way I thought about school. In fact, it redefined school completely. Instead of ‘sit down and listen to your teacher’, it was ‘get up and do more.’ It was a class that let me do what I really wanted to do. Going in, I had some idea of what was going to happen: I knew I wanted to start a company, to build something great. It felt so incredible to be around other people who were also passionate about innovation and doing something new. My approach to learning dramatically shifted: I was asking more “why” and “how” questions; “why is this the way it is” or “how is this done.” I learned the importance of teaching yourself a skill, how to communicate, how to reflect, how to take criticism, how to ask questions, how to disrupt and influence the status quo, and most importantly how to look for opportunities and act on them.
Unfortunately, I knew this class wouldn’t last forever, and near the end of my senior year I came to the realization that college wasn’t right for me. I preferred learning on my own in a more hands-on kind of way through experiences, and I knew I couldn’t get this education style at a university. Around that time, Don introduced to me the idea of the gap year and my research began. Over my last few years of high school, I had been adapting to this new lifestyle influenced by the “innovation mindset.” Of course everything I had learned would stick with me for the rest of my life, but why in the hell would I ever go backwards by attending a university so stuck in the past?
Colleges glorify the idea of getting a degree to go into a single profession that you’ve spent 4 years studying for, with the expectation that you will stay in the same career for the rest of your life. Well, what about the students who don’t necessarily know what they want to do in their life but are still eager to learn new things? I learned more in my gap year than I ever would have if I had stuck with the traditional college route. The gap year, I learned, would be an opportunity to grow outside the bounds of school and understand more about myself through world experience that college can’t offer. Just like I had been taught, I saw an opportunity and I acted on it.
So what all did I do over my gap year? Here’s a short list: I took an idea and transformed it into a profitable company, I hiked through the Grand Canyon, I traveled Europe and spent Christmas in Paris, I got to live on an Indian Reservation and experience new culture and life with Native Americans, I met countless influential people that have transformed how I see the world, I learned from real entrepreneurs, I worked for other startups, I read plenty of books, I took a homeless guy out for dinner, and I mentored other students. One of the questions I get asked the most is, “what was the most enjoyable experience you had during your gap year?” My follow up answer is usually, “all of it.”
I could endlessly talk about all of my experiences, but a few tend to stand out the most. Hiking the Grand Canyon was always a dream of mine. It is such an immensely beautiful geographical monument. I had seen pictures and videos, but I had never actually seen it or felt it. To drive over 24 hours by yourself just to walk through a huge red gap in the earth puts into perspective how big the world really is.
Although, many of my adventures wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t taken a remote work opportunity. I was lucky enough to work for a startup in California called Thrively doing everything from graphic design work to video production. Getting this job allowed me to do the traveling I wanted, and still work with other established entrepreneurs. Furthermore, taking a homeless man out for dinner had a monumental impact on how I view life. I was out one night in Indianapolis and felt it necessary to have someone join me for dinner. So I walked up to the first homeless person I saw and offered to buy him food if he agreed to tell me his life story. That was one of the most memorable nights of my life. The knowledge I gained from just listening to this guy speak was so invaluable and wise that I don’t think I would’ve learned it from anybody else who hadn’t been in his shoes.
As I reflect on everything I was able to accomplish over the course of my gap year, I think back to my early days of high school. What if I had never taken my first business class? What if I had never been introduced to the Innovation Class? Where would I be? I’m so thankful for everything that has influenced me up until this point. I cannot not see myself anywhere else.
All this being said, I think the most important thing I learned from my experiences, both in high school and during my gap year, is to take every opportunity that comes your way. If I hadn’t done the things I did leading up to my gap year, it’s hard to believe I would be where I am today. I’m currently 19 years old and the CEO of a very successful children’s ebook subscription service, I’ve explored halfway around the world, I have a new wealth of knowledge, and I’m happier than i’ve ever been. You can control what influences your future by the opportunities you take. Right now, my future is still uncertain, just as it always will be. But whether I decide to go to college for the sake of a new experience or decide to live in a different country for a month, one thing will be definite…I will continue to learn, do more, and and take opportunities long after my gap year is over.
Bradford Wolf is a 19 year old established entrepreneur with a passion for storytelling and innovation, a risk taker, and an advocate for children’s literacy. You can check out his company here: www.thestorybookfactory.com