Mind the Gap

AYAZ MANJI rues the ridiculing of the gap year.

It’s a week into term and there’s a good chance that some freshers are struggling to throw off the memories from the year before. There’s that unique kind of social embarrassment that comes from realising you’ve started yet another story with ‘This one time in Tanzania’ and I know more than a few people who live in constant fear of being another gap yah cliché. Sure travel’s expensive, but is that the only reason we take the piss out of the people who can’t seem to forget about it?

Lately I’ve been watching the same five minute video on loop. As soon as it finishes I click replay and sit back completely mesmerised until it finishes again. It’s Charlie Chaplin’s closing speech in ‘The Great Dictator’. He plays a Jewish barber who gets confused for Hitler. Finding himself on a platform addressing a huge Nazi rally he bursts into this utterly amazing speech about the virtues of humanity, freedom and individuality.

He tells the soldiers not to give themselves to unnatural men. Machine men with machine minds. Men who drill you, diet you, tell you what to think and what to feel. Instead he urges that the kingdom of God lies in everyone. He proclaims that the people have the power to create happiness and to make life a wonderful adventure.


That feeling of hope and optimism and real choice is hard to crystallise. It doesn’t travel easily in the real world. Uni’s amazing, we’re utterly privileged to study ideas and meet incredible people but that’s not always enough. I can only speak for myself but sometimes everything’s infected by this niggling sensation that its not really chosen.

Did I ever allow myself the option that I might not go to university? The sense of satisfaction with a decent grade is always offset by the worry that I’ve started to care about things that I never wanted to be important to me in the first place. Are we creating happiness and adventure, or just on autopilot?

A month ago I was offered the chance to spend the rest of the year living and working in a sleepy town in southern Cambodia. Wanting it badly wasn’t enough. The idea of not finishing university just seemed pretty incomprehensible. It’s like the weight of expectation, of what my life is supposed to be like, completely crushed the possibility.

Maybe even the way we talk is part of the problem. The words ‘gap year’ give a sense of putting your real-life on hold. Living in a fantasy for a while before getting to the hard graft of making your way within the world. As long as we keep calling them that then we’re bound to see them as indulgent escapism. None of the travel or the work or the friends or experiences on a gap year ‘count’, they’re all just in service of what comes after.

So I can sit with a coffee at sunset and watch the fishing boats race out to sea. Or bike up a mountain until I’m above the clouds. Or drink towers of beer with locals in some cheesy Cambodian karaoke joint. But none of it will feel like real life because right now my mind won’t let it.

David Willets recently described the path from school to university to adulthood as being as smooth as a jumbo jet powering down the runway. Those who have the privilege to travel or to do something, anything, just a little differently, have a real chance to get off the plane. It’d just be a whole lot easier to do if we didn’t insist on calling it a gap.

University of Cambridge