The first time I heard the phrase “gap year,” I thought the person was talking about a year of work at a large American retailer. But it was actually quite different.

At a client dinner, in London, a British woman mentioned that her daughter was taking a gap year — a year between high school and college to gain life experiences. It seemed weird to me, but normal to her.

It really struck me how differently we viewed the high-school-to-college transition. Two highly educated people separated by a “pond” with two very different ideas of the “right” way to prepare their kids for life. I asked a lot of questions.

So why was this gap year so interesting to me? I think because it was different. I had never experienced it myself (frankly, I wasn’t even aware of it). My first reaction was skepticism, because it challenged my mental (American) model of the age-old transition from high school to college. She didn’t mean to, but she was challenging my status quo.

As I listened, it forced me to think about why we approach this transition the way we do. So not only did I learn a great deal about the power of a gap year, I was also reminded of the importance of keeping an open mind and being open to change.

Change = continued relevance

As leaders, our job is to drive growth. And in today’s world, sustainable (long lasting) growth simply cannot happen without change. Change is hard because it causes us to confront our mental models and challenges the status quo. But that is our job. As leaders, we are change agents. We are paid to seek new opportunities, but conditioned to execute efficiently by leveraging our past experiences, relying on our mental models. It is almost as if we are conditioned to resist (and are rewarded for resisting) change and fighting the unfamiliar.

We are paid to seek new opportunities but conditioned to leverage past experiences.

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As leaders, resisting change can damage your (and your company’s) relevance and therefore your prospects for long-term growth. Very few companies can stay on top for a long time, and I believe it is because of an unwillingness to change.

For example, remember Blockbuster? My kids don’t! In the late 1980s and early 1990s, if you wanted to watch a movie at home on your VCR (and then DVD player), they were the answer. They seemed to have it all. Then things changed – bandwidth was readily available in homes, movies were digitized and buying things through your pc was widely acceptable. You did not need a storefront to sell or rent merchandise…enter Netflix. They disrupted the sleeping giant. But as time has shown, the nimble Netflix is also being challenged and so the cycle of change and growth continues. Change is a constant force challenging our mental models.

Albert Einstein famously said, “To break a mental model is harder than splitting the atom.” But the result of each is incredibly powerful.

Change brings unexpected opportunities

As my son enters high school, I am talking to him about a gap year and the power of broadening his perspectives. It’s really not about a gap year in and of itself; it’s about not limiting the experiences that may help him expand his skills, confidence and resume right at the beginning of his journey towards personal and professional growth.

My suggestion is not just to my son, but to all of us … take the time to explore, observe, listen and ask questions. We just may see something that everyone else is missing. Keeping an open mind and breaking a mental model could be the difference between creating groundbreaking and unexpected opportunities and being guaranteed a seat next to countless others unwilling to take a chance.


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Al Chiaradonna