Welcome to the new retirement. It’s about having the freedom to decide when and how you want to take a break from work — to rest, recharge or start a new adventure — no matter your age. In our Redefining Retirement series, you’ll learn how real people are living their lives to the fullest, and the steps they took to get there.

Here, one woman shares how she quit her job to travel the Middle East and Asia — while still using that time to network and grow her professional ties.

Early in my career, I was lucky enough to work at Facebook, even before its big initial public offering. I worked there for two and a half years, building an international recruiting program to find software engineering talent. I felt like I made a big impact in a company that was doing such amazing things.

But as the IPO approached, the time was right for a new adventure. Like many millennials, I valued experiences over possessions, and I wanted to experience as much as possible before I settled down. So I sold my stock in order to travel for a year, and planned to rent out my home in San Jose to help cover the mortgage and provide a little extra spending money.

In 2012, just a few months after the Facebook IPO, I packed up and started my year on the road. I intended to spend most of my time in the Middle East because I already had a lot of connections there as a result of volunteering with the U.S. Department of State's TechWomen Program, which supports female tech entrepreneurs from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East. I hit the typical tourist spots like the Pyramids of Giza, the Dead Sea and the Blue Mosque, but it always left me wanting more.

I much preferred to get off the beaten path and visit countries for extended periods so I could fully experience the culture. I got to know the locals (I even taught English for a period in Istanbul), ate the local cuisine and traveled by bus, train or tuk-tuk. I got an international driver’s license so I could drive in Bahrain, India and Egypt — which is a heart-stopping adventure when you can’t read the road signs.

“Freedom isn’t just about having enough money or being financially secure, it’s also about giving yourself the option to live life on your own terms.”

I did things I would have never imagined, like deep-sea fishing in the middle of the night in Qatar; drinking camel’s milk with Syrian Bedouins; sleeping under the stars in the Sahara; and visiting an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. Best of all, I forged invaluable friendships.

GETTING AN INFORMAL MBA

My sabbatical wasn’t all play, though. I wanted to keep learning and stay engaged professionally because I planned to return to the tech world after my year abroad. I continued to volunteer with the TechWomen program, mentoring a handful of amazing women from the Middle East and traveling with them as part of a delegation to Washington, D.C., and Amman, Jordan. I also joined 500 Startups’ Geeks on a Plane program, meeting with entrepreneurs, investors and tech leaders in Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Dubai. I paid for these months-long programs myself, but I was investing in myself and growing my international network — not to mention creating a lifetime of memories.

DeMaree, far right, visits the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with two other mentors from the State Department’s TechWomen Program. Courtesy of Kinh DeMaree

I was getting hands-on experience in new places and with new tech concepts, which was infinitely better than just reading about ideas in a book. I consider this part of my year off to be like an informal MBA program. Traveling with colleagues helped me bond with them in ways that a business lunch cannot. I connected deeply not only with mentees, but also with fellow mentors. I came away from those programs with a solid personal and professional network that I still maintain years later — in fact, a friend in Egypt recently asked me to be an advisor for his startup.

After my year off was up, I returned to San Jose to work as a tech recruiter, advisor and career coach, though I now consult with companies rather than work for them directly. That gives me more flexibility to spend more time with family and pursue my passions.

I know there was an opportunity cost to taking that year off, and my “old-school” family would have preferred I paid off my mortgage early or invested that IPO money. My decision even surprises me sometimes. But it was a price tag I was happy to pay. For me, freedom isn’t just about having enough money or being financially secure. It’s also about giving yourself the option to live life on your own terms. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat because it made me who I am today.

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