Aihui Ong was a successful software engineer consultant taking home a six-figure salary when she decided to quit her job and spend a year traveling the world.
In 2014 she told Fast Company, “I got burnt out. I lost my love for technology.” The decision, however, was met with criticism from friends and family. “You’re in your early thirties,’ they told me. ‘You should be having a kid or being VP of a company, not staying in dirty motels,’” she says.
One year and 20 countries later, Ong returned to the U.S.. with a new business idea, Love With Food, an online subscription box company that offers organic or all-natural snacks. The following year, her company earned $250,000 in revenue. In 2014, Love With Food brought in $2 million. This year, annual revenue grew to $10 million and recently started shipping to 25 countries.
Gap years—yearlong breaks from school or work—aren’t as popular in the U.S. as they are in other countries where they are not only widely accepted, but considered a necessary step in personal growth and development. “In Europe and in many other parts of the world, taking a gap year is quite common. However, what we’ve found is that gap years are still a new trend in the United States,” wrote HostelWorld CEO Feargal Mooney in a statement. “Young U.S. travelers are more open to the concept than older generations—we’re even starting to see public figures, like Malia Obama, take time off.”
Although gap years are traditionally taken between high school and university, the benefits of a year of self-reflection and personal growth are catching on for older generations as well. A recent survey of 1,000 U.S. citizens by HostelWorld found that nearly 26% of respondents had taken a gap year, and nearly 60% of them did so after college.
While gap years are often associated with travel, only 14% of those who took time off did so to explore the planet, while 39% stayed at home, 26% worked, and the remainder fell into the “other” category, which included dealing with illness, raising a family, or joining the military. Those who did choose to travel, however, reported some significant benefits.
“Eighty three percent said they learned about world, 80% said they had new experiences, 67% said they learned about themselves, and 6% said they made new friends,” says Mooney. “That list of benefits could go on for miles.”
Of those who have not taken one, 37% indicated financial barriers as the key concern. Research shows that U.K. citizens spend an average of $3,820 to travel for a year. By comparison, U.S. citizens spend an average of $24,061 on one year of college tuition.
In a survey conducted by U.K. career site Milkround, 88% of graduates reported that their gap year had significantly added to their employability, findings that were echoed by a majority of participants in a study by the American Gap Association, a nonprofit organization researching the benefits of gap years.
Furthermore, 20 years after profiling 33 students that took gap years for his book, Taking Time Off, Ron Lieber recently caught up with a few to explore how that experience shaped their future careers. “Even if a gap year does not lead to a job offer and an obvious career track, it can light a spark that ends up burning in a different way many years later,” he wrote in a recent follow-up story published in the New York Times. “If you were hiring entry-level employees, wouldn’t you rather employ the risk-taking 23-year-olds who found their way in the world for a while than the 22-year-olds who have not done much besides go to school?” he posits.
Some also believe that taking a gap year is of particular importance for women with an eye on the C-suite. Like many American parents, Sally Blount, the dean of Kellogg School of Management, was a little hesitant when her daughter told her of her plans to spend a year traveling the world.
“As she presented the final plan to me, I suddenly realized that my 18-year-old daughter was proposing to make her way around the world on her own—literally. I flinched and told her that I wasn’t sure I could support her plan,” she wrote in an op-ed for Fast Company in 2014. “She reflected a moment, turned to me, and calmly said, ‘But, Mom, this is what the person I want to become would do.’ I was blown away.”
Blount explains that while there are always risks associated with bold decisions, like taking a year off at a young age, it can be a critical experience, especially for women who dream of shattering the glass ceiling. “You need to use these early years wisely,” she says. “Your first job should be a time when you gain credentials, take risks, travel, and go for as big and bold a business opportunity as you can land.”