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When my high school invited alumni speakers to present about their so-called transformative gap year experience, I shunned every one of their sentiments. Without any regard to their justifications, I presumed that they must have had no clue what they wanted to study or were unable to obtain a spot in the university they desired.

I knew exactly what I wanted to study and which universities I wanted to apply to, so why on earth would I “waste” one entire year of my life? A year that could be spent getting me 365 days closer to graduating, obtaining prestigious internships and securing the most lucrative job that I could.

Throughout high school I eagerly anticipated the unforeseen memories university life would bring -- there’s the growing up, letting go, nights remembered, friendships treasured, cities explored and memories stored. Fast-forward to my graduation, and a pandemic has robbed us of everything I felt we could look forward to.

As unfortunate as the situation was, I began accepting the reality of an online start to university. As the summer progressed, my friends who started university expressed the regret they had with pursuing online school, and my family urged me to take a year off due to the significant time zone differences I would face as an international student. I disregarded the significance of their concerns throughout summer, but when reality hit (precisely two days before the start of university), I took a leap of faith and officially deferred my study with not a single plan on what my next 12 months would contain.

Little did I know, those months transformed my mind-set on learning, my assessment of priorities and approach of finding fulfillment more than any year in school possibly could. These are my takeaways from my year off that I never thought I ever wanted but desperately needed.

Hit the Brakes

Moving 180 kilometers per hour, I would try to ramp up my engines till they roar. Throughout high school I ferociously hit the accelerator to travel at the fastest speed possible. I entirely overlooked the significance of hitting the brakes. You decrease the likelihood of crashing, you can recognize if you're going in the wrong direction and, most important of all, you learn to take notice of the breathtaking view along the way.

High school often felt like a rat race of striving for grades, pursuing extracurriculars and carrying the mental burden of planning for your future. The art of merely being is nothing I've experienced before. I'm constantly replaying the thoughts of others -- obtaining knowledge through textbooks, visualizing realities created by the producers of movies, amplifying my emotions through the tunes of music and allowing social media to shape my worldview.

For the first time, I began talking to myself. Looking at myself in the mirror and literally asking myself, are you happy? What brings you happiness? What makes you strive for success? Why do you do what you do? What are you grateful for? I was quite the academic student, fortunate enough to be recognized with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Toronto and achieve a 45/45 in the International Baccalaureate diploma program. As you can imagine, school and studying was 80 percent of my life but realistically reflected no more than 30 percent of what brings me fulfillment.

You cannot recognize your imbalances when you are moving at 180 kilometers an hour. Hit the brakes, slow down and talk to that voice inside your head.

The Magic Word

What can you possibly do during a pandemic? This question plagued me with irrepressible frustration. I thought I could thoroughly plan out my entire year, but it was impossible.

The volatility of the COVID-19 situation cut my plan to take six trips to explore Thailand’s hidden beauty to two, sliced my goal of pursuing three in-person internships to two semivirtual ones and completely slashed away my hopes of volunteering in a rural area and pursuing an advanced diving license.

The unknown is inevitable, pre-pandemic, pandemic and post-pandemic. Uncertainty frightened me because it made me feel like I had lost control and comfort. But I slowly realized that, perhaps, life is best when things unfold in unexplored waters. Perhaps the unforeseen hurdles are intrinsic components of our journey. Perhaps the only thing that needs controlling is our mentality.

To me, there was one mantra that dictated that mentality -- saying yes.

I said yes to every networking event possible, a start-up opportunity that failed within two months, a climate hackathon that I utterly floundered in and an internship that highlighted my apathy toward law. Saying yes to a social enterprise idea led to my closest friendships, the development of extensive business experience and a vast professional network that later secured me an internship and future job offer. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such an outcome.

Do not merely say yes -- consistently seek opportunities that discomfort you and knock on every door you can find, for you will open yourself to unimaginable outcomes.

Fail Forward

My teachers would often preach about embracing failures, but I struggled to wrap my head around their dogma. How can failure provide any merit when I will never repeat that same assignment again and all I am left with is a permanent scar on my grade point average?

It took losing over 50 percent of my personal savings to cryptocurrency and stock trading, being rejected by more than 25 internships, and failing every day in a social enterprise I lead called Rescued Glass for me to genuinely understand what my teachers were advocating for.

Failure hurts. It's as if our pride has been stabbed, leaving you blinded by remorse.

On the day my atrocious risk management led to my significant trading losses, I shoved my face in my pillow and spent a week wiping off my tears of unfathomable regret. As difficult as it was, I urged myself to begin spending hours on end watching YouTube videos on the fundamentals of investing. Particular financial concepts piqued my interest, which naturally pushed me to pick up investing books, complete multiple Coursera courses and pursue the Bloomberg market concepts program.

Before I knew it, I had completed 28 online courses and eight virtual internship programs, and, above all, I had discovered the disciplines that I am truly passionate about. For the first time, I strived to learn because I wanted to, not because I had to.

When you use failure as a catalyst to move forward, it can be the most authentic and stimulating learning journey you can experience.

I was so opposed to a gap year that it took an entire pandemic to force it upon me. Little did I know it would instill imperative values that would last me a lifetime -- finding comfort in being uncomfortable, slowing down to prioritize what is fundamentally important and embarking on an endless loop of saying yes and failing forward.

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