Tag Archives: Gap Year

How to Change Everything with One Bold Decision

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about 12 months after the decision that changed our lives forever
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about 12 months after the decision that changed our lives forever


What is one decision that would change absolutely everything about your life?

I am not talking about some flimsy resolution to change breakfast cereals.  I am talking about the boldest kind of decision.  The kind of call that makes you shudder at its potential impact.  The kind of decision that few make but that, once made, completely changes your life.

In the fall of 2012, Jammie and I made one such decision.  It was to quit our jobs to travel the world and do service projects in 2013.  Our lives have never been the same since.  Here are some of the biggest changes:

Action = Liberation! – A year of travel and service is easy to talk about.  We know.  We talked about it for years and did nothing about it. It was just too scary.  Taking action involved quitting our jobs; uncomfortable conversations with family and friends and diving into the unknown.  But we finally decided that we simply could not put off action any longer.  When we, at last, quit our jobs and set our plans into motion we learned that bold action is one of the most liberating things in life.

Risks are less scary once you take them – Less than three months into our year we realized that we had been foolish to fret so much about the risk we had taken in opting to reinvent our lives in 2013.  We were offered jobs; we made friends thousands of miles from home and began to see life-changing opportunities that we had never before noticed.  The risk we had taken in leaving behind the old turned out to be not very scary at all.  It was exciting!

Relationship magic – A lot of people say that travel is the ultimate test of relationships.  Both Jammie and I say that we grew closer in 2013.  Travel taught us to handle disagreements better and gave us a LOT more time to spend together.  We had conversations about things we simply had not talked about in our first year and a half of marriage when we had been stuck in the rat race, running faster and faster for lack of a more healthy perceived alternative.  This year we learned to appreciate each others’ qualities more than ever.  Quite simply, we are better friends than ever.

Seeing the value of  money- 2013 taught us to be frugal.  We had planned carefully for 2013 financially but even so, the fact that we were living off of reduced income streams and savings meant that we learned to be more careful.  Little savings tricks really helped.  One I use a lot is converting prices into Thai baht (there are about 30 Thai baht to 1 US dollar) and reminding myself how much I could buy in Thailand with what I am about to spend on, say, a Starbucks Frappaccino in Los Angeles (I can eat out for two days in Thailand for the $5 I would spend on that one drink).

Learning the limits of money – Even if our financial planning was a big reason that we were able to do what we did in 2013, we have noticed some very clear limits to what money can provide.  What good is money if you spend your every waking hour in a dreary office trying to accumulate more?  I’m not knocking hard work but living in the illusion that postponing real enjoyment of life for some nebulous future “retirement” is dumb.  You have absolutely no idea how your health or closest relationships will look by retirement.  Find ways to enjoy the benefits of retirement (time with loved ones, travel, service and personal growth) using your current budget.  It is probably not as expensive as you think.  For example, living in a place like Bangkok for a month can be done for less than $500.  Don’t have a month?  Start with relocating somewhere for two weeks.  Even two weeks of completely unplugging in a new environment can do wonders for your outlook.   If you really want to see me get on this soapbox, read this: Retirement is fool’s gold, live your life now!

Leaving the United States makes more sense than ever – Growing up outside the US, I was always convinced that America was the land of greatest opportunity.  That may technically still be the case but the magic seems to be fast evaporating.  On the flipside, the pace of progress in Asia and other fast-developing parts of the world makes even a bustling city like Los Angeles feel like a sleepy backwater.  I’m no hater, just stating facts.  Dare to think bigger than life in the US.  Trust me, you will thank yourself.

A quick word to my American friends: this is NOT about being unAmerican or lacking patriotism.  Surely one of the best things about American thinking is the pragmatic, no-nonsense pursuit of opportunity.  You are not being a bad American by pursuing opportunities outside the country.  What do you think the future pilgrims lives would have looked like if they’d stayed in the Old World?  Moving East is to the 21st century what moving West was to the last five.

We see more options than ever – Even if I theoretically knew that I had options in life, I was too jaded to really think about them before we took off in 2013.  Whenever layoffs took place at either my workplace or Jammie’s, I would get really worried.  What would happen if we lost our jobs?  How would we survive in a weak economy?  I would let such concerns influence my decision making and my overall happiness.  I grew much less adventurous and assertive.  I put up with things in the day-to-day that I should not have.  Looking back at 2013 and the improved work and life opportunities we now have, I wish I had been bolder before our trip.  There were always better options.  Fear blinded me to them.

What is the one decision that would change everything for you?  A new year is approaching.  You’ve got it in you to make a decision that would change just about everything for the better.  What is it going to be?  Investing in a relationship?  Completely changing what you eat?  Firing a bad boss?  Traveling the world?  Please don’t waste time the way we did before making our life-changing big decision.  Boldness now could mean a world of difference.



We have quit our jobs to travel the world!!


We’ve never done anything this huge: My wife Jammie and I have turned in our resignation letters, quit our jobs to travel the world, write and do service projects for 12 months. We have picked four major world cities – Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai – and we are going to spend three months in each. We are ridiculously excited.

Why are we doing this?
Years ago we started planning for this kind of a move. We had always wanted to live and work internationally, to get involved with international humanitarian nonprofits. We did not want to be stuck in one town or country working office jobs for the rest of our lives. We had always wanted to free up our location and really live the tag line for CultureMutt: savvy, global do-gooding.

Why now?
This huge step was easy to put off. We had already put it off twice. Twice we had told ourselves that we were going to take the bold leap to travel and work oversees. Twice we backed out.

It took a dramatic, late-night conversation with one of my closest friends to finally decide to activate the plans we kept postponing for a “better”, “more convenient” time.

“You are young and you have so much to offer!” my friend, shouted in my ear over the din of a rowdy San Francisco lounge. “Why are you playing it safe as if you were middle-aged with a mortgage and kids?! You are selling out! This is the time to go for your dreams and take some risks. If you fail you can rebuild but if you succeed you will be living the dream. Do it!!”. That conversation was the final push I needed. Within days we decided to finally act on our plans and go for our dreams 100%.

How can we afford this?
How are we paying for 12 months of international travel and living without jobs? For starters, we picked very affordable cities that we had either lived in, visited or at the very least, researched. Then we put aside enough of our savings to cover the basics of tickets, rent, food, etc. For any additional expenses we will make money the way both of us have in the past: through freelance writing, consulting and teaching. The beauty of making money using these methods is obviously that you can use them to make money anywhere in the world.

Why Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai?

Bangkok  – We both love Southeast Asia. And there is no Southeast Asian capital with quite the same dynamic mix as Bangkok. The food is amazing, the country is beautiful and we already have a non profit that works to prevent sex trafficking that we are going to be volunteering for in Thailand.

Buenos Aires – I spent four amazing months studying Spanish in Buenos Aires in 2005. Weeks before leaving I was already missing this awesomely stylish city. The tango dancers in the streets, the amazing artistic scene and the roar from the “futbol” stadiums are unbeatable. Also, on the volunteering front, I have friends in Argentina that are well-connected to some education and healthcare nonprofits for which we would love to work.

Berlin – The buzz about Berlin as a European youth culture and arts capital is well-deserved and growing. Not only do we want to sample this but we want to establish relationships with some of Berlin’s emerging, young entrepreneurs. Young creative minds have descended upon Berlin in droves in recent years. This a city on the move and we want in.

Mumbai – Mumbai is India’s biggest, baddest city. It is also home to Bollywood, the second largest film industry in the world. Put simply, we want connections within this industry. They could be very helpful in our quest for savvy, global do-gooding. So far we have some friends who have worked in Bollywood. We aim to make more of them. We might even land a cameo:)

When does this all start?
After Christmas in England with my family, we fly to Bangkok in the first week of January, 2013. There starts our series of four, 3-month world city relocations. This is happening!

There – now you know. Wish us luck and if you have world travel tips for our gap year or any specific advice on navigating our four world cities, leave them in the comment section.



Bjorn Karlman

Game Changer – 5 Reasons to Take a Year Out Abroad to Reinvent Yourself

The reason I am so passionate about what I call savvy, global do-gooding is that it quite literally has changed my life more than once.  Between finishing the equivalent of high school in England and finishing college in the United States I had done the following:

1) Spent 12 months with an international volunteer organization that had me stationed in two Filipino villages for the first six months and then a little town in Swedish Lappland that was 80 miles from the Arctic Circle and so far north that people cared more about their snowmobiles than they did about their cars.  I taught English, worked with kids and built several lasting friendships.

2) Studied in Cedex, France for an entire school year, just across the border from Geneva, Switzerland.  I skied the Alps; floated in the Mediterranean; ambled around Paris and bluffed my way around Monte Carlo casinos.  And I learned French:)

3) Taken a year out of college in the United States to work doing Public Relations, recruiting and some teaching at the international boarding school that I had attended several years prior in Watford, just north of London.

4) Spent a semester studying Spanish in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  In addition to all the language classes I went to Tango shows; survived the madness of a River-Boca match (the biggest soccer rivalry in Argentina) and dodged some genuinely energetic political protesting, complete with gas bombs.

In each case what I craved more than language acquisition or work experience was transformational life experience.  I wanted to reinvent myself each time.  I wanted to be a very different person after each period abroad.  I wanted to put the regular growth experience on steroids.  Although I had a number of disappointments and some painful failures, I can honestly say that these times abroad stretched me and allowed for the growth I was seeking.  I’ve deconstructed my experiences to understand them better and I’ve come up with a a list of benefits to taking a “gap” year abroad to study, work or travel abroad:

1)  A Clean Slate – For better of for worse, relocating abroad gives you a chance to start from scratch.  Yes, this means starting from ground zero to build a social circle and to get to know the neighborhood.  But it also means that past missteps and complicated messes are behind you and you have a completely new opportunity to create your life.  Build it from the ground up.  The first time I was abroad I took advantage of the clean slate to transition from being a 16 year-old high school nerd to a far more independent and socially courageous 17 year-old.

2)  You are more receptive to learning abroad – Where you might tune out mentors and helpful friends at home due to long-developed biases, the newness of being abroad means that you are grateful for those that help you and you learn more readily about the culture around you.  I found that while I was highly critical of my own culture and society, going abroad allowed me to rest that sense of cultural self-critique and genuinely enjoy learning from those around me because what they brought to me was fresh and new.

3)  Language acquisition helps you understand a new way to be human – You cannot begin to understand culture and people before you understand their language.  And the beauty of different languages is that they allow for different expressions of what it means to be human.  When you start to learn languages you begin to realize that certain sentiments can only be correctly expressed in certain languages… Try translating a Spanish love song by a popular artist like Shakira into English and you’ll see what I mean – beautiful in Spanish, cheesy in English.

4)  Negative home influences are nowhere to be found  - I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to get complacent when my surroundings get too familiar.  I find a niche of friends, carve out a comfortable life rhythm and settle into a little too much of an autopilot existence.  The negative attitudes, limiting beliefs, low expectations and general monotony of everything around me threatens to become part of me.  Travel has helped me shake this cloud of mediocrity.  With travel my surroundings change, I meet happy fellow adventurers and I am constantly confronted with exciting new ideas.  Travel is a great way to jump start life when it seems to grind to a halt. 

5)  You are who you say you are – As much as it is “important to be yourself”, it is equally true that you can define and redefine yourself throughout life.  In no context is this more true than when you are on the road.  I’ve noticed that international service projects in particular are great because you can seize them as opportunities to become who you really want to become, a better person.  Whether you end up become more self-aware or whether you successfully learn to be a very different person from emulating the life of an excellent service-minded mentor, travel provides a great new environment to focus on service and intentional development.

I would love to hear your top reasons for taking a year out abroad.  Leave me your thoughts by leaving a comment!



Bjorn Karlman



Service and Travel – Life’s Natural Steroids

16 year-old me and some friends I met while working in the Philippines...

I was fifteen and my mind was made up.  I was about to finish secondary school (high school) in England and I was anxious to get out and experience more of life than I got within the confines of British boarding school restrictions.  The plan was that almost immediately after school let out, I would move to the Philippines (where I had spent five years as a child) for a year of volunteer work.  I was excited.

And finally the day came.  Soon after turning 16 I found myself saying goodbye to my parents and sister at London’s Heathrow airport and jumping on a plane bound for the Middle East (for a stop over) and then Manila.  I was so excited I could barely contain myself.  Finally, I was living life on my own terms.  “This is what freedom feels like,”  I told myself.

After a fairly uneventful layover in Abu Dhabi and several more hours of inpatient waiting, I finally got to Manila and was whisked into a van by representatives from the volunteer organization.

The drama started just outside the airport where there had been a shooting and the victim was bleeding in a car nearby.  I remember getting really nervous because I was afraid that the gunman was still close by.  Nothing happened.  Traffic finally thinned and we were able to make our escape from the area.  Kind of an interesting re-introduction to Manila.

The year of volunteer service turned out to have its triumphs and disappointments – I ended up spending half of my time in the Philippines and the other half (mostly) in northern Sweden.  I taught English, organized activities for children and assisted clergy with some local projects.  Some of my greatest experiences of excitement, fear, loneliness, elation and confusion stem from that year. Its been 12 years since my experience and a lot of the specific memories are fading from my memory but if there is one thing that is sure, it is that I was changed to the core by the experience.  I came back to England having experienced more accelerated personal growth than I have ever experienced since.  Looking back I am glad I did what I did.

Here are the key advantages of the year abroad that have sold me on the concept of service years or gap years as near essential life experiments in personal growth:

We all need to experience raw freedom

The sense of near total freedom that I experienced while setting my own rules as a teenager was dramatic. My experiment with being deliberately counter cultural seemed to pay off.  There was something brilliant about doing something entirely different from what others were doing.  While I could have been home investing in gaming consoles and Brit pop, I was learning languages, living two minutes walk from a beach with the warmest water conceivable and learning the ins and outs of rice harvesting.

More than enough time for serious soul searching

Being away from the usual comfort zone of friends and family that understood me meant that I had a lot of time for introspection.  It led to a great deal of growth.  Some of it was really tough… especially when it came to considering the idea that I may have been completely wrong about opinions and forgone conclusions in the past.


As I mentioned, I came back from my year abroad a VERY different person from the person I was at the outset. The year was transformational and I very intentionally planned the future and the person I wanted to be upon my return.  I never stopped being me but I was able to basically direct my own growth and development.

Heightened Love/Hate Relationship with “Home”

Being away for a year increased my appreciation for the advantages of life at home and heightened my awareness of the weaknesses of societal norms at home.  Coming back to England was amazing on the one hand.  I loved my family, London, old school red telephone booths, etc. but more than ever, I had experienced a different way of being human and saw more clearly the flaws of the consumer-driven, blinkered European approach to life.

Learning to see the options others ignore

More than anything, the year abroad mean that I got to experience the fact that I really had options in life.  I could craft my own experience.  That is a truth I hope to never forget.  Life is so much more than ridiculous office cubicles, boring corporate nonsense and two weeks vacation a year.  Life can be radically different and better.  It really is as simple as making the right decisions.  We can all decide to navigate our own destiny.



Bjorn Karlman