Read. You get to just READ. Don't read so you sound well-read. Don't read things every intellectual is supposed to have read. Read so your nerves tingle and you get that literature high that only the perfect book or poem or play for you can provide. Try to read a lot. Make lists of books you want to read and then keep track of what you've read, but permit yourself to get distracted. Taste the words.
Seek conversations. Make it a goal to sit down and listen to the life stories of everyone you meet, at internships or on the subway or in your family. Inspiration is everywhere. This is the most important thing you'll do all semester because at the end of it, your time off won't be a list of countries or facts or "work experience" -- it will be a series of people you met who will have changed your view. The people will become your lessons. When I share periods of my life with you, they invariably revolve around the people I interacted with daily during those times. Be able to summarize their lives, but also remember how you felt when you were talking with them. Let the humans you encounter overwhelm you.
Appreciate spaces. Physically stop and look at your surroundings so closely that someone watching you might think you were a nature freak or really, really weird. Just inspect things around you -- nature, art, architecture -- because those are the same things that you'll recognize in a busier time and whose beauty you'll remember then. Take a second to thank the sunshine. I lived in bustling city apartments during my gap year and spent time photographing fruit on a farm. I visited a glass house in the middle of a sunny field for a day and that's where my mind goes now when I want to picture a supremely exultant place.
Learn from every person and thing. Don't underestimate anything in its ability to be a source of knowledge. Read everything around you -- ads, pamphlets, newspapers -- and ask questions. I'm still struck by how pertinent some of the things I came across while traveling coincidentally became in my school life, and how if I had been paying just a little more attention I could have seemed less than completely ignorant in ESPP 10.
Record. I firmly believe that writing about your experiences is the best way to remember them. I often forget things even barely between the lines of what I wrote about my days, but I love remembering the order and timeline of my year through words. Your mode could be different -- photographs, videos, postcards -- but definitely do something to remember.
Think more. Question yourself. Interrogate yourself about what things make you happy, because these will become relevant questions later. Do I want to work in an office? Do I want to live in the United States? Do I like hammocks? You can't really "find yourself" in a year but you can certainly locate significant parts of you.
Don't think so much. And then just enjoy and experience because the whole idea is that you won't get to do this again, right? Shut your brain off and stop being a compulsive planner. Surround yourself with people who make you comfortable and curious and happy and engage your "live" mode. And then bring that attitude back to campus so you know you've really learned what you wanted to learn from your year.
Be present. We always say this to one another but truly, you're not taking time off to worry or regret or go on Facebook. You can meditate if you want but even if you don't, just be there. Every moment you will live this semester is a moment you chose to experience the way it chooses to unfold, so immerse yourself in every instant.
Erase your goals. You'll go in thinking you want to do certain things and visit certain places and answer certain questions and then in actuality you'll embark on entirely different journeys, around the world or in your mind, and they will be just the ones you were supposed to find.