Recently I've been thinking about the main benefits of the gap year I took two years ago. The default answer I previously gave were the same points you would typically hear. "It changed me," "I became more independent," "I had fun", and "I experienced so many new things". While all of those are true, I've come to a new conclusion about why it's important for everyone, but especially fresh graduates, to take a year off (and travel if possible) . Becoming independent is still one of the most significant changes you gain from traveling. But more importantly, you get the chance to detach from your old identity.
Before I explain, I want to give some background on my perspective. In high-school, I had high aspirations. I wanted to be successful and rich, but I didn't have the motivation to get there. I spent most of my time playing video games. I wasn't lazy, but I was unmotivated and disillusioned with school, which made me feel hopeless about doing anything substantial. Most of my life revolved around homework, worrying about good grades, and participating in these useless clubs to help boost my resume. I didn't like any of the activities I was participating in, but I felt compelled to do them to help my resume. What I hated most about high-school was that it wasted so much of my time. Video games also wasted my time, but at least I enjoyed it. School should've been meant for learning, but instead it was designed for us to memorize facts to do well on the AP and then forget everything we learned the week after. I hated high-school so much that I decided to graduate early and spend the next year traveling. So I saved up money in my junior year and had enough runway for 4-5 months of traveling. That was still the smartest decision I've made to date.
I've noticed that college is extremely similar to high-school in this regard. Most kids spend their college years doing the same thing: worrying about grades, studying constantly, and participating in clubs that they don't really enjoy to boost their resume once again. The only difference is the environment. Kids get to taste freedom now that they're away from their parents. But since I traveled alone before I started college, it felt more like a downgrade. I felt like I went right back into the despair of high-school. College is definitely useful for some. But in general, spending a year on your own provides a lot more benefit rather than jumping straight into college.
Now, as to why detachment from your old identity is so critical. Because we get so wrapped up in the studying and homework and clubs, we forget that there's more to our lives than just grades and internships. It's hard to realize this when the pressures of school constantly surround us. Although traveling isn't the only solution to detach, it's one of the most effective ones. When we travel to a new place, which could simply be a new state or city, we give ourselves a clean slate. We remove the external pressures around us which gives us the space we need to come up with new ideas and introspect in a way that we typically never make time for. When you break off from your identity as a student, you allow yourself to actually understand what you want out of life.
Although, it still depends on what you do with that time. I spent a lot of time exploring, reading, and listening to podcasts, specifically The Tim Ferriss Show. And listening to those interviews with him helped inspire me to learn more. He explained how it's entirely possible to learn skills at a profound rate, and the biggest obstacle we face is our self-limiting beliefs. That gave me the inspiration I needed to redevelop my curiosity and love of learning that I previously had. This time can be spent differently for everyone, which will yield different outcomes. But a likely outcome will be that you develop intrinsic motivation to accomplish your goals. When you leave your previous identity, you remove the pressures of school to motivate you. So you have to motivate yourself, otherwise you won't get anywhere.
These changes depend on the intentions you set beforehand. If you take this time off just to party and have fun, nothing's going to change. It's not like you have to abstain from having fun. Traveling is inherently enjoyable for most people. But make sure you actually want to change, otherwise this will simply be a vacation rather than a pivotal moment in your life.
The ideal scenario would be to spend a few months away, so aim to save enough to afford at least 2-3 months off. The first week or two might be spent just relaxing or reading random books (at least that happened for me). But after the initial rut you find yourself in, you adjust to your new environment and you push yourself to do new activities (exploring the city, meeting new people, doing things you've never done before, etc). I'm very introverted, so it felt easier meeting new people when I was in an entirely new environment. It was still hard, but easier than before. Having that clean slate makes most things that seemed impossible, possible.
I know the timing of this post probably isn't optimal, with COVID-19 and all, but the takeaway shouldn't be just to travel. The main takeaway should be to give yourself time to detach. Traveling is one method to do so. Detach from the pressures that surround your bubble. School isn't the only bubble we put ourselves in. Give yourself time to breathe, and spend time learning and cultivating your curiosity. This may be harder for some people who can't afford the time to do this. That's why it's best for young people to do it, especially after graduating either high-school or college. As a young adult, you typically have less responsibilities than you do as a parent or someone with a 9-5 job. Traveling is just an easy method to do this because you start off with a clean slate. You don't have to worry about your old identity at all. If you can afford to take a few months off, go rent a place in a different city or state and take a break from your old world. It'll reinvigorate you and light up a fire that may have needed rekindling.