06/13/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

The Surprising Upside of an Untraditional Summer Experience

Summer has begun, and with it comes not only the flock of interns descending on cities like D.C. and New York but the return of media coverage -- in the form of advice for interns, reassurance for non-interns, discussions of privilege and unfairness -- of the experience that has essentially become a rite of passage for high-achieving youth. The pressure to secure an internship and the steep financial investment often required to pursue the opportunity are absurd. During the first three years of my college career, I networked, interviewed, saved money, and stressed out so that, come summertime, I could intern without financial support from my parents.

Then, one summer, I took a break from it all.

If you're still in college, it's important to understand that summers are important, but there's no need to fall for the traditional opportunities. Indeed, it was during my "summer off" that I gained the most valuable experiences. And if you're a recent college grad who's been accepted to grad school or offered a job that begins in a few months, you've already impressed the admissions committee or hiring board, and you've made it to the next step -- so do yourself a favor and stop preparing for it.

That's what I did. Two years ago I graduated from college and, fortunately, had a job offer in hand. I requested a late start-date from my employer and didn't have to show up for work until the last week of August, meaning I had a three-month "vacation." With a pile of student debt and no paycheck coming in yet, my options were limited. So before making my northbound journey to start work, I took a southbound (OK, Deep-South-bound) detour. I exchanged campus life for small-town life and moved in with Mom and Dad for what would be one of Alabama's hottest summers on record. It was the best summer I ever had.

That's because in those three months, completely removed from the rat race I had left behind on campus and the up-or-out environment awaiting at my job, I wrote a book. Well, not a whole book, and not a book that, at the time, was any good. But that summer I became a writer. I learned how it feels to love what I do. And by the time summer ended and I started my job, I had gained an entirely different perspective on what I wanted, and didn't want, out of it.

It's been two years since that hot and humid summer in Alabama, and I still have the same job. I enjoy it, and it pays the bills, but because I discovered what my passion is, I didn't let myself grow consumed by what my passion is not. Since starting work I have made writing a priority, and I recently finished my book and am currently working toward publication.

I don't regret the summers I spent holding internships. They opened countless doors upon graduation, and even though I never found my calling through those opportunities, many of my peers did. During each of those summers, however, I was trying to impress others -- peers, parents, future employers -- and it was only when I stopped impressing someone else that I learned the most about myself.