...it's not that getting an engineering degree limits you, but it changes your perceptions of the options you can pick from (mostly because it looks like it'll change other people's perceptions of you). Graduates from an engineering program, especially one like Olin, and particularly because you're the first class, are expected to do "well." By normal terms. Which means an upwardly-mobile corporate job, a highly-regarded grad school, or at the very least a spunky little startup. Anything "beneath" that is a waste of talent, or training, or intellect, or opportunity, or...
Cognitively, we realize this. Emotionally, it's harder to reconcile, especially with lots of neighbors and friends and relatives and their combined expectations. It's like applying to Olin in the first place. I'm pretty sure all of us, at some point, got incredulous stares and a "What do you mean, you don't want to go to MIT/Stanford/? What's this... Olin place? Have you gone bonkers?"
I think you should... do whatever you think will make you a better human being. Because ultimately that's what life is about - it's not about being a CEO, or even a really good engineer; it's about being a good person, and whatever that means to you - if it's being a CEO, that's cool; if it's having wild experiences, that's cool too - if it's being a good mother, or a musician, or getting involved in local politics, or recycling everything, or knitting... there's a lot to life, and it's your life, so should do what you want to do. In the end, you'll be left with lots of memories, so there's no sense looking back with regret.
You don't "lose a year" any more than anyone else; years go by regardless of what you're doing. There is actually no such thing as "falling behind." It's just a different way of deciding how to spend your years. And those that recognize that and are able to control it and be happy with it are the lucky ones.
Also, these "quirky experiences," or whatever you want to call the off-the-successful-engineer-beaten-path stuff, will make you a better CEO (or designer, or whatever) in the future. Lots of "successful" people can't help those that aren't "succesful" because they've never been there. They don't understand the world outside the one they live and work in. I think it's great that you want to go beyond that. I think this is one of the few chances you'd have to do so, the space between graduation and your first job; you're still fresh into the world, you're still impressionable, you're still open-minded and able to learn. And while you'll still be open-minded and thirsty for knowledge later in life, there's something especially nice about a blank slate. No preconceptions.
I'm planning on taking at least a year to do something different (current plan: roadtrip hopping from school to school and writing a book about american k-12 education - or - teaching english/math/science/design in some non-US country, probably China.) I want to understand a different kind of life, one without privelege, assumptions of education, internet access, piano lessons, and consistently clean running water. I'm also planning on working in the corporate world and going to grad school at some point so I can be an Olin prof for some period of my life.
I figure they won't think less of me for spending a year living in the back of my car, as long as I get as much (or more) from the experience as I would have in . Doesn't have to be the same thing, but needs to be worthwhile, by whatever standards you judge worth. I reckon if I think I'm a better person to hire a year down that road than I was before, and they don't think so because it's "not normal," then I probably don't want to work for that company in the first place. Wherever I go, I want to go off the beaten path, so they need to be ok with me veering off in the first place.
You're not alone.
Yeah, but I sure feel like it now.