What should I do with my life?

Like many of you right now, I spent the last four years drafting the blueprints to this question. It would be incredibly reassuring if I could tell you destiny herself penned the bulk of my long-term plan, but the truth is that it was often a messy process, subject to erasures and add-ons. And it is still ongoing. I have reached one conclusion with certainty: I want to attend medical school and commit to a life in health care. With this clarity of vision, advocating for a gap year seems contrary. Yet here I am taking “time-off” to pursue a path that I never anticipated. Why? Why take a gap year?

I wish I could tell you my decision was made with great intention. The honest truth is, at the time, the choice kind of backed into me. There was an opportunity cost between taking advantage of all the programs and classes Duke had to offer and pursuing a track that would allow me to go directly to medical school. Ultimately, I decided to take the post-grad experience so I could live fully at Duke.

Ironically, over the past few months I’ve done the opposite. I allowed myself to indulge in the misconception that my life had “not begun” before I embarked on my “destiny.” On one hand, I was certain of my next step—medical school—and on the other, I felt lost in the present. It is no wonder that sometimes this interim period seemed like a gigantic waiting room. My plans were getting in the way of my life, and I knew it was time to reassess.

Living in Washington, D.C., I’ve had the privilege of hearing from world leaders, political powerhouses and influential individuals. During conversations, someone in the audience would inevitably ask how the speaker came to their position—in plain language: How did they end up where they are? The candid speakers would acknowledge that the road was winding and filled with surprises. They would confide that their circumstances were often a mixture of choice and luck, that some detours led to great things and that sometimes the steps taken only made sense watching in reverse.

Looking back at my gap year thus far, I see now that this was the right decision for me—not only because of what it allowed me to do in the last few months and years, but because of what it has encouraged me to do and who it has encouraged me to be in the present. I am growing up.

New York Times columnist David Brooks once noted in an editorial that creating oneself was as much about the company one keeps as the life one leads. He wrote, “Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before. Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you.” These past few months, I have had the privilege to work day-in and day-out with public servants passionate about advocating for the uninsured and underserved populations of rural America. At night, I have had the luxury of time well spent with some of the brightest, most interesting people—people I am humbled to call my friends.

In the beginning of the rest of my life, the viscosity of fear slowed me down. Part of my struggle in taking a gap year was the realization that I was once again a very small fish in a very large pond. I was uncomfortable in my youth and inexperience, unsure of my voice and discouraged when my skills required growth and refinement. In my current position, however, I soon learned that ego has no place in my work and that I can only go far if I let myself do so.

I also learned that there is more to life than work. Life extends far beyond the professional sphere—or academic sphere, in your case. If I went directly to medical school, there would have been books unread and glorious episodes of “Suits” forgone. I would have never had the chance to spend family time with my nine-year-old sister. The new friendships I nurtured would have never come to fruition. I would have never become the person I am today.

We all want to be the authors of our destiny, but be careful—there is great hazard in letting life pass us by while we wait for destiny. Like a good book, part of the joy in life is discovering the unexpected plot twists and becoming immersed in the details. In your transitions at Duke and my gap year alike, I challenge the both of us to take time to occasionally forget where we are going and explore where we are now, because the markings of a great story will make even the transitions meaningful.

Kristen Lee, Trinity ’13, is a Truman-Albright Fellow at the federal office of rural health policy in Rockville, Md. This column is the fourth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.