Four years ago, my now 20-year-old daughter Tara declared (not asked) that she was postponing college to do a GAP year in Europe. She intended to work as an au pair in France in order to speak French, expand her horizons and have a culturally immersive experience. I responded something non-comital like, “that’s an interesting thought” internally convinced the idea would pass and that she would ultimately start college right after high school.
As the years went on, maps of Europe took over her walls and Tara intensified her efforts to make her dream become a reality. I pushed for her to reconsider doing a Junior-year-abroad program instead and she pushed back harder with a firm “No.” Even when she temptingly got accepted into her dream school and found out they would not defer her admission, she still insisted on going. And she did, finding a family, securing a visa and figuring out every other detail on her own.
I eventually yielded and fully supported Tara’s decision. But not because I necessarily agreed with it at the time. I supported it because I saw Tara’s passion and conviction to follow her dreams. I knew that if I did not allow her to go, Tara would resent me for forcing her to follow my path and always wonder “what if.” And I recognized it was my fear-based “what ifs” that were getting in the way of me supporting her. What if something bad happens and she’s half-way around the world? What if she decides not to go to college? What if she doesn’t want to come home? They were all valid concerns (some of which happened) and I concurrently recognized that Tara had to live her own life and not be held back by my fears.
I learned so much from Tara via this chapter of her life. I learned that it takes courage to follow your heart, especially when you are faced with pushback from significant others. In addition to my resistance, Tara’s school counselor tried to dissuade her, some friends questioned her choice, and her favorite teacher actually told her it was a “terrible idea.” Yet Tara did not cave to any of them, standing tall and firm in her convictions.
I also learned that it takes courage to do something new and different when there’s no guarantee of the outcome. You might fail, you might be disappointed, and you may even question your choice. And then again you might not. You might be amazed, you might be enriched, and you might grow exponentially because of the experience. More than likely, it will be a bit of both. But letting fear stand in the way of your hearts’ longing often becomes a huge source of regret.
Midlife has many transitional milestones. The ones that call for courage are the hard ones – deaths, health challenges, divorce, empty nests, etc. – which are inevitable times for change. Our worlds naturally shift during these transitions, creating space. opportunity, and sometimes demands to do things differently. Maybe your heart is yearning to leave a career you’ve long outgrown. Maybe a relationship needs some serious work or has even run its course. Or maybe it’s time to cut the cord from a toxic friendship. All of these changes take courage and entail risk but, in my opinion, the cost of not doing them is even greater.
Tara’s decision to take a gap year ultimately ended up being the best decision and experience of her life – enriching, lifechanging, and educational in too many ways to count. It wasn’t without its challenges but those too were valuable as she grew leaps and bounds from managing them. She did end up falling in love with Europe, changing course and is now attending University in the Netherlands. Though it’s hard having her live so far away, she is happy, fulfilled and following her heart. And that is priceless.
My hope is that we all follow at least some of our heart’s longings even if we’re scared. The clock does not pause for us to overcome our fears and we don’t want to be plagued with “I wish I had ___________”. As the wise adage goes, “It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.”