I was always someone who knew what she wanted at each stage at school: GCSE choices took no more than 2 days, as with A levels. My university degree barely required thought at all. My most brain wracking decision during my school years was which secondary school to go to, and my mum pretty much decided that one for me. So when I hit crisis at uni and decided it was best to take a year out my whole world felt like it was falling apart.
I was no longer the girl with direction, and with that loss I no longer had mental security that I would be successful. Taking a year out in my mind meant I was going nowhere fast and that panicked me. It was not just me with this opinion either. Many of my parents’ friends had made it clear that they thought a gap year was a waste of time and that one “might as well get on with it”. Other’s were of the opinion that it was a “nice break”, but that no more than that; you had to ‘return’ to the ‘real world’ after that. I found it mildly ironic that those same people thought it strange that I would want to make the most of my year by exploring different directions and career paths instead of aimlessly wandering round Peru taking photos to put on Facebook. Surely if life was about making a success of yourself, you should use all your time to become as employable as possible? That’s what school had taught us anyway. Amongst this contradictory disapproval I had one saving grace: I would be returning to the normal, conveyer belt system in the Autumn.
As time went on people continued to enquire as to what my movements were, what I planned to do for the rest of the year and then what my plan was next year with uni and beyond. By about February I felt a little as though people were asking me when I was planning on having children.
To be honest I’m one of those “average” people – someone who is good at a lot of different things but isn’t great at anything, not naturally anyway. There are a lot of us out there and I think that they would agree that society’s fixation with completing one education route at maximum speed makes it pretty hard for us to be successful and/or happy. Us ‘average-ers’ need time to figure out what really makes us tick (or we’ll just get bored and want to do something else) and which are the areas where we actually have real potential (can we be great at it?).
The thing is, taking a year out, (putting aside the reasons for me doing so), was the best thing possible. It allowed to me to sit back and smell the roses. University was my comfort zone, having been in an academic focused structure since the age of 5. For the first time I felt I could actually do what I wanted. What was this “real world” that my mum’s friends had been talking about? I assume they were insinuating that university followed by City life was, but to me this feeling of opportunity to make something of myself was more real than writing essays at university.
Cooking is something I have always loved. Whenever I have fallen out of love with my other hobbies I have always returned to it in many forms, whether baking or cuisine. So after some thought and discussion with my mum I signed up to do a certificate in cuisine. At the time it was a way of using a hobby to gain something “real”. Many friends took this as a new career path, rather than an experiment that would create a fallback opportunity (yes there is a difference). It was by no means at first intended as the former and the fact that people latched on to it as what my future would be frustrated me more than anything. Although I decided I wanted to cook, in some form, as a career my mindset was still to sit back, relax and enjoy being young. The whole point was I was for once “going with the flow”, doing something that I loved and actually enjoying myself instead of trying to fit the mould. With being an ‘average-er’ and a highly strung perfectionist this was supposed to be something I and others were proud of.
It may seem like a waste of money, then, to do a cooking course if I don’t 100% see it as the first directive step in, but I would argue differently. Firstly it is not totally directionless; I will have learnt a lot by the time I finish: I will have a life skill at a world class level that I can take to an employer anywhere in the world and gain employment, be it ad hoc or full time. I will also have “grown” as a person and learnt a lot about organisation and commitment (amongst other general skills). Alongside: political speech writer, MP, investment manager, headhunter and countless other considered careers (including horse breeder) being in the food industry may turn out to be just a phase. I may one day decide I am not a good enough cook, or that I hate the sight of a chopping board and want to join the circus..who knows? But at least I can say I tried. Besides, I can always come back to it later in life; it will never be a total write off.
The most important thing this year has taught me is that it doesn’t matter whether you have a step by step 10 year career plan or are dabbling with totally different options, especially when you’re under 25. In fact it seems crazy to think that my school friends and I were all freaking out as to what we were going to do for the rest of our lives before our GCSEs were chosen. In contrast, in my cooking class I am the youngest by 4 years and only a minority (of the older ones) have had a clear cut career before taking time out to do this course. Funnily enough none of them are unhappy or insolvent…
I suppose my point is that, although I (and others) felt my taking a year out halted my life, it was actually the start for me. It opened doors rather than pulling to the ones that were already open to me. Considering ill health was a factor in my decision, it has really brought alive the expression “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain”. Having time off created a storm, but instead of treating it as a time to find a temporary resting place I have learnt that it is a lot more fun and productive to dance in that rain.
We as a country have moved on from structure in many ways and many aspects of life are more flexible. Class movement is a lot more fluid (some would argue that most of us are part of one, big middle class). Women can have babies and go back to work etc etc. Surely this flexibility should be applied to those leaving school, be it at 16,17 or 18. Further education is not for everyone and it is often those who stick with it knowing they are not getting much out of it who lack success and life fulfilment in the end – something I’ve pointed out to my mum’s more snobby friends on countless occasions.