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You need skills to be successful, but which are the hardest to learn if you go straight through school to college? Which are the best skills to focus on if you're planning your own gap year program?

I came across a number of valuable lists while doing the research to answer this question: 

But where these articles fall short is in describing how one actually learns these skills. Where in our modern testing culture do you learn the ability to learn? Where do you learn collaboration and critical thinking?

The gap year and semester abroad is the perfect opportunity to define your own education, and create the kind of learning you know should be a part of your pedagogical repertoire. It's your opportunity to zoom out, and figure out, "What are the kinds of things that I want to learn?" rather than the things that are mandated to you.

The short-list below is about inspiring you to be active about your own learning, and to use the gap year as an important opportunity to explore a number of different lifestyles, experiences, careers, and fields of study.

Which skills will prepare you for everything the 21st century has to offer?

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1. Collaboration

No matter what your job or lifestyle in the future requires, the ability to collaborate effectively will be an invaluable skill. Increased automation and artificial intelligence will probably be taking over all of the tasks that don't require an innate understanding of human nature. Anything rote is likely to be replaced too.

The one thing robots can't do is think like a human. They're not inherently team players. So those jobs are here to stay. Working on a design team, negotiating a deal, doing scientific research, developing new energy policy and technology -- these are just a few examples of careers that depend structurally on effective collaboration.

Semester abroad, gap year, and summer programs don't always support collaboration. Many programs will send you to a far-off place on your own, with no team to bounce ideas off of, no peers to challenge your thinking or push you to understand how another team mate is feeling. Living in community is harder.

All of our programs focus on cohort models specifically for this reason. But that's not to say there's no alone time.

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2. Independence & self-sufficiency

We've all heard the stories. A student leaves home to go visit a far-off country. Runs out of money, gets robbed, gets stuck at an airport with the wrong visa and can't come home, or worse.

Learning independence and self-sufficiency is a matter of degree. You don't give yourself something too easy, nor too hard. You don't drop yourself in the middle of a Mumbai slum on your first time away from home. And you don't want to spend all your time abroad on the Thames, sipping lattes. You want to find the place where you'll grow the most, the fastest.

Winterline's approach is to sequence independence, building up to the Independent Study Project, where our students propose budgets, planning itineraries, and their own learning schedule, and, for the 9-month program, are given free reign to pursue them anywhere in Western Europe on a given stipend. In advance of that, students learn how to survive in the wilderness, how to deal with solitude with meditation, how to negotiate and manage a budget.

You learn independence by taking out more and more sizeable chunks of it. The key is balancing safety with challenge, knowing your limits, and knowing when you're ready for the next big bite.

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3. Cross-cultural understanding

The world is becoming smaller. Interactions that weren't possible a decade ago occur on the regular. Flying around the world for business used to be the sole definition of globalization, but now these things can occur instantaneously across the web. You can FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom, Uber Conference, Facebook Live and so on. You can probably even Twitch your meetings.

But what all this means is that any international understanding you possess is inherently magnified. You may be running a startup in Boston, but your interactions with people from different countries, of different faiths, time zones, values, priorities will be extremely regular.

Having spent time in a certain country is one thing. But having interacted with people from those places in a deep, sincere, and meaningful way, beyond "Do No Harm" and toward actually contributing to those communities as they've defined it, is of far more value. You can speak to their work styles, their deference to elders, their ways of expressing respect because you've taken the time to understand them. But also, you can know your own limits, the limits of your own culture, perspective, and sense of what's possible in the world.

Culture is a powerful force, and it shapes what we believe we can do with our lives. The more cultures you are familiar with, the more of an impact you will be able to have in your life.

Ultimately, the value of a gap year is not just about making you more prepared for a career, but making you more prepared for all of what life has to offer. The more you see, the more you experience and interact with regarding collaboration, independence, and cross-cultural understanding, the more you will be prepared for life.


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