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A Quarantine Birthday
8th November has – at least in the last few years – witnessed a mellow birthday celebration. A family trip to the hills, a lunch with a few close friends, or (in the midst of last year’s application season) a simple takeout from my favorite restaurant. Over the years, the appeal of a huge birthday party with all the pomp gradually faded and was replaced by a low-key gathering with no gifts. This is all to say that a raging epidemic searing through the country at an exponential pace did little to obstruct my regular birthday plans.
The celebrations this year were much of the same, barring the lunch with my friends which was replaced with a midnight Zoom call. The rest of the day saw me taking a break from my research internship and instead deciding to inhale all of Netflix with a tubful of my mother’s signature velvet mousse. As the evening came to a close, my dad had arranged for me my favorite street food: two jumbo-sized samosas from the takeout counter of ‘The Embassy’ in Connaught Place. What followed was a family game of Monopoly, where my brother and I build up our appetites the best way we know: accusing the other person of cheating endlessly. The Monopoly session concluded just in time for my all-time favorite Domino’s Pizza order: 1 medium, thin crust Chicken Dominator with a side of chicken wings and a Choco Lava Cake to top it all off.
In the last 4-5 years, I’ve always opted in for the pleasant and easy-going party instead of an all-out birthday bash. And thankfully, despite the pandemic, this year was no different
Kindles and Guitars
I’ve come to the realization – as have most people for whom it is the first pandemic – that it is extremely handy to have a hobby to keep yourself entertained within the constricting 4 walls of your house. In my case, however, the problem was not having a hobby; it was having one too many. For the longest time, I have wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Yet, I also tried to follow in the footsteps of John Fish, trying to go through one book per week. But wait, I’m just as eager to improve my skills in chess. And of course, there’s always the New York Times Crossword and sudoku puzzles by ‘Cracking the Cryptic’ on YouTube. Oh, but how will I ever get around to speaking French fluently? Where do I even begin?
In this sea of hobbies and fascinations, I found myself confused. What direction should I swim in? The grass always looks greener on the other side (or, in this analogy, I guess the sea looks bluer). This all is, obviously, nothing new. A frequently known phenomena to someone who has worked in marketing, overchoice or choice overload can occur when one is presented with too many choices, all or most of which may seem equally appealing. Making a conscious decision under such circumstances can become infinitely harder than if your choice were restricted to, say, only two courses of action. What if I end up making the wrong choice, pursuing a hobby that may not be as worthwhile? In this haphazard labyrinth, I did what came to me most naturally. I swam everywhere. Mornings got kicked off with the NYT Crossword, and the rest of the day was interlaced with habitually picking up my guitar, sitting at the chessboard, getting through Le Petit Prince, or solving Sudokus. And as the day came to an end, my midnight routine involved a health dose of my trusty Kindle (which is, till date, my most valuable purchase).
But, this unstructured and whimsical attitude, albeit entertaining, was not really helping me develop any of my hobbies in a meaningful way. It was merely a surface level exploration of all the areas. I was around 3 weeks behind on my readings; my guitar skills were subpar, at best; I was still somehow getting fool’s mated in chess, and so on. But I realized, with an entire year’s worth of activities to look forward to, I could easily split my time between these activities. Instead of trying to get everything done at once, I could quite easily pick up one, or two, work on those first, and then move on to greener pastures (or rather, bluer seas). Therefore, I have decided to put a few things on the backburner for now, focusing primarily on keeping up with my resolution of one book a week, and improving my guitar skills, with a hint of chess every now and then.
Almost three months into the gap year, it is still difficult to fully appreciate the true freedom that a year off from formal education can provide. It is an exercise in self-exploration and reinvention, and I hope to make the most out of it in the remainder of my time off.
Managing Time Without School
As a part of the Duke Gap Year Programme, I have learnt an important lesson over the last few months: the freedom that a gap year affords you, while liberating, can also be dangerous if not managed properly.
It started out a few weeks ago, after the initial excitement about the prospect of being enrolled in a gap year programme subsided. I’ve always considered myself a ‘night owl’, achieving peak productivity in the eerie silence of 2 am, devoid of any distractions. For the first few weeks, these nights witnessed a productivity-fueled Sid, rapidly typing away at the keyboard. However, the bubble had to burst sometime, and around 3 weeks ago I started to slip up. Netflix slowly started to replace Coursera. David Dobrik videos began to pervade the YouTube recommendations page. The procrastination that accompanies a lack of a schedule (and a raging global pandemic) had started to set in.
I first noticed the warning signs as I began to fall back on my reading list. The one book per week target I’d set for myself was slipping through my fingers, and if left unattended it was soon going to be out of my reach. I realized that unless I sat down and set a schedule for myself, something for which I had relied upon my school for the most part of my life, these short bursts of productivity followed by days of indolence was going to set in as the theme of my gap year. And so, being the millennial that I am, I turned to YouTube to solve my problem. Ali Abdaal, John Fish, Matt D’Avella, you name the ‘productivity’ channel run by an ambitious and successful college student, and I’ve seen it.
In the end, I settled for a mixture of all of their approaches. The mainstream productivity application ‘Notion’ became the backbone of my recovery to the old productivity-fueled Sid. Slowly, but surely, I have started to make progress in that direction. As I start to get into the rhythm more, I’m finding it increasingly comfortable to settle into a schedule without any college deadlines hanging over my head. While this may not be the last time I fall off the wagon, I am sure that the next time I do, it’s going to be much easier for me to get back up. Setting my own deadlines has in some ways made me much more responsible (and accountable) in terms of how I choose to spend my time to most effectively accomplish my goals. I’m excited to see what else the gap year has in store for me, and to mature further in the coming months.
Why I Took A Gap Year
Having been born and raised in India, the notion of a gap year has always been fairly restricted to a specific segment of students – those who are unable to perform up to their expectations in the cutthroat entrance tests to the most prestigious universities in the country. If one wasn’t spending their gap year preparing for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) or the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the idea of taking time off before college would be frowned upon by students and parents alike.
I, too, had bought into this prevailing herd mentality of going straight to college after high school; if you’re taking a year off and not studying for a test, you’re simply wasting your time – time that could be well spent earning an undergraduate degree. That is, until I came across the Duke Gap Year Program. It piqued my interest largely because it was an opportunity unlike that offered by any of the other colleges into which I was admitted. What started out as a mere curiosity to explore what the program entailed, transformed into a paradigm shift in the manner in which I view a gap year.
I came across an article by admissions officers at Harvard, which talked about how the increasingly competitive application process often leads to students ‘burning out’ before they begin college, and how taking time off can allow students to recharge and begin afresh their 4-year undergraduate journey. It was surprising how much I was able to relate to the content put forward by the authors, so much so that I showed it to my friends who also applied to colleges in the US, eliciting similar reactions. Soon enough, I was surfing the net for hours, scouring for opportunities to make my gap year an enriching experience, getting everything in order to pitch a concrete plan to my parents (who, unlike me, had not yet been disillusioned with the stigma around a gap year).
What drew me most to the idea of a gap year is that it allows me to freely explore my interests, both academic and non-academic. Having studied in a curriculum that structurally lacked an interdisciplinary component, I never had the chance to delve further into my interest in astrophysics and political science in school. The freedom afforded by the gap year will be crucial in helping me understand my interests and aspirations in a more comprehensive manner and providing me with a clearer picture about my future, which will consequently result in a more fruitful and enriching college experience. Having had the last 2 years of high school crammed with standardized tests, extra–curricular activities, and the college application process, it would be a wonderful opportunity to have time to recharge and enter college as a much more enthusiastic freshman.
Although I’ve had limited experience with the gap year so far, the ability to plan an entire year of my life without having to worry about any school commitments has been truly enjoyable, and I hope that over the next few months I am able to expose myself to a range of new ideas and concepts.