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What I wish someone told me before becoming a digital nomad

When people hear my story of working around the world, they almost always tell me that they’d too love to leave the confines of their current life and work remotely. Usually they mention that shaded canopy on a pristine-white sandy beach in Thailand they have their eye on.

And (usually) I nod and lightly encourage it, but lately, I’ve started to have reservations about the way we talk about digital nomads. And it’s time I came clean.

You “don’t regret it”? My bullshit detector just went haywire.

There are thousands of articles on becoming a digital nomad on Google (exhibit A above). I know because I’ve read (and have written) many of them.

But what many of these articles WON’T acknowledge is the inauthentic, bullshit, double-rainbow portrayal and fetishization of digital nomads (and their travels in general). Some of us scream into our GoPros and jump off a waterfall, thinking we’re defying convention. But take a good, hard look: We digital nomads actually are…

…the new hipster.

Digital nomadism has become another form of counterculture that’s been absorbed into the mainstream. We think we’ve got it all figured out. That we’ve bent all the rules and have “hacked life,” but in reality we have really turned into a novelty-chasing culture tending toward the commoditization of this lifestyle. Just look at Remote Year, for example. You can pay money to be a digital nomad for a year, like you’re just going on a goddamn cruise (which, by the way, exists too…).

Look, I say these things because I am 100% guilty.

Over the last three years, I, too, have had the highly coveted privilege and ability to work remotely from seven different countries for months at a time.

Here’s a snapshot of me pretend-working in my tiny, 150-square-foot studio in Paris:

And here’s me pretend-being-Zen in Oahu:

OK, one more of me pretend-contemplating the virtues of living a life off the beaten path in Utsunomiya, Japan:

Who wouldn’t be in awe of this?!

But there’s just one giant, misleading problem: I’m tired. So damn tired.

Tired of the expectations that people somehow have of me to keep up this lifestyle for their own voyeuristic pleasures…

Tired of the way people either put me on a pedestal or make me feel alienated upon learning how I choose to live…

Tired of having to say goodbye to people I had just started to bond with over and over again…

But most of all, I’m tired of the things most digital nomads won’t tell you beyond those videos of them scuba diving in the Maldives or zip lining through the Costa Rican jungle.

Why? Because so many of them are doing a damn good job hiding the fact that they’re not as happy or fulfilled as people think they are. That being a digital nomad doesn’t change you fundamentally. It’s your life … but over there. And when you get back (and you will), your problems don’t go anywhere.

And it’s for reasons I wish people had been real with me about when I started.

What makes a “digital nomad” life even possible

I have since hit the brakes on my nomadic lifestyle, but when people catch a whiff of what I do they usually ask to “pick my brain” (shudder) on how they, too, can make money while traveling to all the exotic locations on their bucket list. Each and every time, I give this oft-disappointing advice: Well, that depends.

Save that follow-your-dreams stuff for a Disney movie script. Because “how do I become a digital nomad?” isn’t the right question.

The right question is actually: Do my immediate personal circumstances align with all the things required to be a digital nomad?

In other words, are you…

  • Single without dependents or any familial obligations? (Or do you have a family situation that allows you all to live this lifestyle together?)
  • Free from financial obligations such as credit card debt, a mortgage, student loans, etc.?
  • Capable of earning consistent income that allows you to set up life anywhere you go?
  • Comfortable with instability (mental, emotional, environmental, stomach)?
  • In this for the long haul (because, sure, anyone can travel long term on a budget for a while)?
  • OK with being alone and a perpetual foreigner (unless you’re lucky to be traveling with a companion/buddies)?

I’m in a privileged position because no matter what Facebook ad or a course promises you, not everyone can do this.

The jump to a working life on the road was not a spur-of-the-moment decision that I had made willy-nilly. It wasn’t some brazen act of rebellion. It had been heavily calculated, as if I was planning the first 15 moves in a game of chess. The decision was made slightly easier, however, because my own professional and personal circumstances were just right. 

Professionally, I had spent nearly a decade sharpening a skill set that allowed me to work online (writing/editing). I had actively built the right relationships and reputation that provided me with avenues for steady income. Then on the personal front, I had no family of my own to look after, had paid off any major outstanding debt, had accumulated enough savings to keep me comfortable for a year or two, set up all of my bills to be paid automatically, forwarded my physical mail to the right places, and made sure I didn’t burn any bridges.

Basically, I was clear to depart whenever without having to worry about coming back to the otherwise smoldering remains of the previous life that I could have neglected. I tell you these things because, as you can now imagine, the steps I laid out are a far cry from the messages of those short-sighted gunslingers who shout, “It’ll all work out in the end. Just follow your dreams!”

Nah, son.

image3 4

Pragmatism is extremely important to consider. A lifestyle is something that you can enjoy and sustain, after all. Screaming #YOLO and buying a one-way ticket to Amsterdam as a way to escape the realities of your current situation isn’t that.

I’ve seen some young, strapping digital nomads start out optimistically only to run themselves into the ground and return home jaded, emotionally tattered, and (sometimes) in a terrible financial situation. Here is an account of someone who started out strong, but packed it home:

Big ups to Eva for being so open here.
http://www.evaexplores.com/travel-fix-depression/

These are the people who think being a digital nomad is this bold choice that helps them shed their old life and problems. But returning home is a big reminder: wherever you go, there you are.

The stakes can be high and they require you to think more deeply about this decision than “eff it, it’ll work!”

How digital nomads make money

In our age of the internet, smart, sustainable digital nomadism (this is a thing now) isn’t impossible. But if you want to build a business, surprise — being a digital nomad with a viable business means you still have to nail down the unsexy basics of building a business, day in and day out. Doing your taxes by the beach is still doing your taxes. When you’re constantly on the move as a nomad, however, building a business gets complicated when your discipline and focus are constantly waylaid by distrac — ohh, look at that pretty waterfall!

For non-business owners, paid gigs that support a nomadic lifestyle aren’t as elusive as one would think. If you don’t run your own online business or already have regular clients, websites like Remote.co, Upwork, and Fiverr are specifically designed to help you find freelance work that can earn you some scratch while you’re in — wherever.

But there’s a catch.

Many of these gigs don’t pay that well for the time you may have to spend on them — certainly not enough to sustainably support a “lavish” nomadic lifestyle. This could lead you to another and simply bigger hamster wheel, where you’re running endlessly after gigs and keep working all the time.

You can easily be stuck jumping from underpaid gig to underpaid gig, too busy to enjoy the sights and too far away to quickly build a network in your field.

So unless you can become highly specialized and land higher-paying, consistent clients, sporadic gigs here and there may not generate the income you need or want. Even if you’re smart about budgeting and are staying in a low-cost area, the stress of constantly trying to make ends meet can eventually run its toll on you mentally and emotionally, leading to burnout and possibly getting you stuck in places.

For the reasons why, we come to…

A few unspoken truths about “working and traveling” at the same time

We are not meant to be so mobile

At first, the idea of going with the wind can feel like a cheap roller coaster thrill on infinite loop.

Until you eventually realize that you need to come down from that thrill and just feel normal.

Some of my friends used to complain to me about the drudgery of their daily routine, and I’d nod along in solidarity. But after constantly needing to reconstruct my days and weeks in every new environment, I found myself envying their routines. It’s odd how you don’t realize the value of having a routine until you no longer have one. Every little decision and question, even the mundane everyday things like where to get my groceries or if a coffee shop has Wi-Fi, threw a wrench in my day.

I missed and craved that normalcy … and dare I say, the feeling of having a home. My constant cycle of setting up and dismantling of a temporary home was not home. And just as I started to feel comfortable somewhere, I’d have to pack up and do it all over again. It messed with my head of where home even was. And that, too, was draining, as these other digital nomads can attest to:  

TheTravelHack talking about choosing not to be a digital nomad
https://thetravelhack.com/blog/why-i-chose-to-not-be-a-digital-nomad/


This couple talking about settling down on
https://twodrifters.us/blog/giving-up-full-time-travel.html

The reality is that being a nomad doesn’t wrest you from your life. It’s still your life, but in country X now. And any problems and baggage you have will still be there (or sometimes even manifest in new, unpredictable ways!).

Being a digital nomad puts a strain on relationships

Most people can’t fully comprehend this idea of living life off the grid. In a sense, it’s just so much easier to say “yep, I’m an accountant!” as your dinner partner nods and pokes at their salad.

My flexibility allows me to go all over the globe to build new friendships, rekindle old ones, and reconnect with long-lost family members. That is incredibly precious and amazing! Until … I have to leave. Leaving people over and over again was so emotionally taxing, like a slow and steady erosion of your grip with relationships, but these days I’ve adopted the mindset of “It’s not ‘goodbye.’ It’s ‘see you later.’”

They say that travel is a powerful form of personal development, though not from all those WOW, LOOK, IT’S MACHU PICCHU IN THE BACKGROUND moments. Rather, it’s a slow, painful process (like anything) of blowing yourself to bits and pieces when you first arrive at a destination; and then somehow putting yourself back together one frustrating, difficult, or delightful experience at a time. 

If you can pull it off, going to destinations that have a built-in community is ideal. Or the even better scenario is to invite and coordinate with friends and have everyone meet you at a certain destination. For example, one Thanksgiving holiday, I’d spent time in Costa Rica with a group of friends that was made up mostly of entrepreneurs (but of course). There were over 30 of us that had dropped by and passed through, and it was wonderful seeing so many familiar and new faces, even if briefly.

It’s easy to lose sight of why you did this in the first place

In a way, becoming a digital nomad has become somewhat of a capitalistic command. According to copywriters, you should “screw the 9 to 5 life” and “follow your passion.”

The implication is clear: you’re a sucker for being “trapped” in a full-time job that keeps you in the rat race. But here’s the kicker: becoming a digital nomad, ironically, becomes its own sort of rat race. In other words, how many of us digital nomads can outdo each other in novelty?

Who can travel to and live in the greatest number of countries?

Who can build the biggest YouTube channel talking about all the cool shit we’ve been doing?

Who can get to the most remote place (that still has internet) and act like the most untethered, I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out lone wolf?

Travel is awesome, but not for the reasons often depicted. Traveling is supposed to be a way to expand your worldview, become emboldened, gain humility and new perspectives of people and the world, and so much more. You simply can’t extol these benefits and capture them all via a doctored Instagram snapshot or a heavily edited YouTube video.

Initially, I thought that I was doing this for the love of travel and discovery. But as I went from one place to another, I realized that I had been traveling for the wrong reasons. No longer was I interested in traveling for … travel. To my dismay, I was getting high off of chasing novelty. I’d gone down a disingenuous path, where the only way for me to feel like I was doing something of worth was going to the next destination that would bring comments like, “Wow, you’re so lucky to be there!”

Indeed, I was, but please tell me more about it so I can feel validated.

And of course, that may just be me. Don’t get me wrong: there have definitely been many moments in my experiences that gave me pause and made me breathlessly tell myself, “Holy shit, this is my life.” And yes, holy shit, this is my life, and I am so grateful that I get to live it.  

But I just want you to know one important thing: Most digital nomads don’t have life figured out any more than anyone else who claims to have life figured out.

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There Are 30 Comments

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Mike nguyen

Thanks for the candid post Stephanie. All of this needed to be said.

As an aspiring digital nomad, this is a very thought-provoking post – I loved the part about the rat-race of novelty. I hadn’t thought about it in that way before. I definitely can imagine everything that you’re describing. However, maybe what I am chasing after isn’t necessarily the digital nomad lifestyle where one is constantly on the road working as they move from place to place. The part that appeals to me is simply the freedom. To be able to earn from anywhere you want, whether you’re staying there for 3 days or 6 months. To be able to say, “I’m feeling a bit bored with life and need some adventure or a change of scenery,” and to have nothing stopping you from changing. For me, my ideal life (for at least the next several years), is to spend 6 months a year in Colombia (my base) and 6 months traveling. I’m in the beginning stages of creating what is meant to be a blog aimed at encouraging digital nomadism (or at least location independence). You’re post is definitely some food for thought. I want to be able to stand behind what I am encouraging/teaching 100%. Keep up the good work!

Max Correa

This article explained my nigh-four years in Colombia to the last word.

What part?

Hey Mitch! I have been living pretty much the way you intend to do for almost three years now, together with my girlfriend. The best advice I can give you, beyond having money saved and foreseeable sources of income, is testing. Test spending two months away, and 10 at home, 5-7, etc, until you find the sweet spot. Also, make sure to take time of real vacations. Living away does not mean vacation, it means working from a different lication ;). And enjoy every bit of it 🙂

Stephanie- this is so well written and completely hits the nail on the head. I always say “Put the business before the dream” because “figuring it out in Thailand” or freelancing gig to gig just isn’t sustainable.

As a location independent entrepreneur, I purposely don’t use social media like Instagram or Facebook because my travel is MINE. I’m not living to prove my life is cooler than yours, but sadly this is a trap people fall into when they are just looking for an Instagram presence on steroids. You liken it to the “new hipsters” while I liken it to “Keeping up with the Nomads”.

Being a digital nomad is NOT a job. If you want to get paid to travel then you should work in the travel industry.

Building an online business is not easy and requires a lot of work. I have found a methodology that works well for my clients, but making money isn’t as simple as sharing your website.

Everyone seems to think there’s a “wrong” way to be a digital nomad.. which is ridiculous for a lifestyle built on freedom of choice.

You really articulated everything unspoken in the digital nomad movement. Bravo!

You could build on this and turn it into a complete article that stands on it’s own. Well stated.

Glad to see something of the realities of being a digital nomad. I’m in IT and have been fortunate to be able to pick my family up and move to a new country while working remotely as a contractor for my previous employer. The things from this article that resonated with me the most:
1) You’re still you and all that entails.
2) You now have everything from my first item plus you now have to learn how to live in a new culture and likely in a new language.
3) Moving internationally with a family takes more work than when you’re single. Take items 1 & 2 and multiply that by each member of your family.

My wife and I are trying to build a side business so that if my contract disappears at some point we’ll have a fallback position so that we don’t have to pick up and move back to our country of origin because moving is stressful!

Kudos for “spilling” the truth!

Thank you for this post. It’s really filling the gap about digital nomadism.

I’ve never been one, although from time to time I fantasize about it.

When you wrote about the rat race it really caught me. Is there any digital nomad thinking that they are out of the rat race just because they are working on the go?

Unless they can leave their business behind and live off their passive incomes, they still are in the rat race… Possibly even more than those who have a safety net of a relatively stable 9-to-5…

Christian

Aspiring “Digital Nomad” here. But ironically I want it because….has nothing to do with all the hopping around you discussed lol. I loved your article and it really brought me into your life for those paragraphs, i feel like i understood everything you were saying without ever having experienced any of it. For me, the trap of the 9-5 makes me feel like a caged animal. I just want to be free, not necessarily having to travel because i am a home body. but just to enjoy life on my own terms; and yes course if i want to book a one way ticket here and there it could be just a few clicks away with approval needed from no one. at the same time being able to work and giving me more time to work on whatever other business im looking to create 🙂

Fantastic post. Like Mitch above, what I like is the idea that I could travel as much as I want, whenever I feel like it. Right now, I can work from anywhere, my kids are homeschooled, but they have a lot of recurring activities every week and my husband has a regular 9 to 5 job.

I would love for the both of us to work from home and to be able to take the kids on 3-months big trips: it would be a wonderful education for them, but we all really need and love our home…

Thanks Stephanie. This article is really well written and shows the reality of nomad life.

We are often lookout for a way to get away from the life we are living, digital nomadism seems to be a solution to that. But like everything in life, it has its own pros and cons that you well illustrated.

Thanks Stephanie, mega valuable indeed, and great to read nomads speaking the truth for a change.

I myself am traveling since 2006, and the hype lately really leads a lot of people to believe you just need a backpack, a MacBook and a one-way plane ticket, and within 6 months you’ll be a millionaire… so thanks for clearing this up!

The main hack that has kept me on the road (and somewhat sane) over all these years is scoring local part-time jobs. They help you find your way into the community, learn the language, fight loneliness, and lead a somewhat ‘normal’ life. They also help you slow down your travel pace a bit, since you often don’t want to leave all these wonderful friends you’ve just made.

In case this helps you and your audience, here’s my take on being a hybrid nomad: https://ceekaiser.com/real-life-lessons/hybrid-nomad.

Thanks again for speaking the truth, please keep it up!

Cheers from Germany,

Chris

Stephanie,

Your bit about the questions one needs to ask were spot on. I did the nomad thing living in the back of a pick up for a while way before there was digital to support the lifestyle.

In order to pull it off I started with, no debt, low expectations about comfort and consistency, lots of blankets, the ability to eat simple cold food when I couldn’t find a restaurant or cook, some seed money, and the ability to clean up well and convince employers that I was a reliable employee even though I was “homeless”. I also had good support at home so that I was “anchored” and knew that people were aware of where I was and could find me should something go sideways.

It was an awesome thing and I was glad that I did it but it was difficult. It was cold sometimes, hot others. Lonely. Some people thought I was a complete loon for being a female living in the back of a truck. I was not a kid at the time and I still had people asking “your parents let you do this?” On the other hand, like you, I’d get people saying they were envious and I’d tell them just do it. There response was but I have a ____________ and provide a long list of all the reasons that they couldn’t do what I was doing. Which was the answer to the list you provided at the start of you article.

It has been in the back of my mind to try and do the digital nomad thing as some point and your article that I had already done the nomad gig, that I’d gotten from it what I wanted to get from it, and that I have come a point where I value my routine so much. That was, in fact, why I ended the gig when I did.

Excellent article, well written and thought provoking. Thanks.

Great article Stephanie!! There have been times where I’ve thought, “Why don’t I want to be a digital nomad? Is there something wrong with me? Why would anyone want to do any of that?”

But now I get it. And now I’m even happier with the choices I’ve made for myself. Thank you!

Finally an honest post from a digital nomad as opposed to the nonstop, phony, ” MY LIFE ROCKS, LOOK AT WHERE I AM.” This beautiful hobby of travel, self discovery and pursuit of happiness has been ruined by this new form of digital keeping up with the Jones’. Where instead of competing for material things we just try to outdo each other in places we have been and how free we are or subscribers on youtube. This is why everyone is miserable. Until you learn to be centered and happy with yourself and stop trying to fight for social status you will always be depressed. Someone will always post blogs, youtube videos or pictures that make their life look better than yours. Its all a hoax. Its just a picture. It doesn’t show their true feelings and life. Its a fake. Haven’t you ever smiled for a camera photo even though inside you were unhappy about something. That’s what these photos and videos are.

Thank you Stephanie for an honest post.

Thank you for your article, Stephanie.

As a remote worker I could work from practically anywhere, but chose to settle down in one area because I like getting to know a place and its people deeply as well as build a home rather than be constantly moving.

It sounds to me than a lot of digital nomadism has become simple status seeking rather than a genuine attempt at self-actualisation. It’s also probably not that great for the planet either.

I also wonder if there’s a middle way which involves post fewer updates on social media and staying in one place for a year or two rather than constantly hopping onto the next destination and bucket list high…

Thanks Stephanie for reminding me why I came home after spending 4 years wandering all over Italy and Greece. I definitely had more freedom and leisure over there, life was usually more fun and interesting, and these days I sometimes feel trapped in my current job. But I’m actually happier now, at least most of the time. You just helped me understand why.

I always thought I wanted to be a digital nomad…and then I realised I just wanted to freelance and have a lot of trips from a home base!

SHHHH!! You’re not supposed to say *that*. 🙂

You spilled the beans, let the cat out of the bag, and exposed us all. haha
See, I’m one of those “let me help you become a digital nomad” digital nomads. Yes, sold everything, moved abroad in 2006 with a new family. Started the blog in 2009. And, after nearly 10 years of answering questions from expat-hopefuls, I’m tired of it. I give people the same disclaimer: it’s not all Thai beach-huts and Tuscan villas.
But nowadays, it seems there’s an ever-growing surge of questions. (trumpgret?)
Anyway, a sincere thank you for the post – well done and it’s about time someone said it.

Love this! I have been nomadic for years in the past, but would never do it again. It’s hard to get real work done if you’re constantly on the move and all those “look at how glamorous my life is” shots are mostly put up by people who are one step from broke. I travel a lot, but with a base to come back to so I can run a real business that supports me and my family.

Well, I have to say that today I was thinking of digital nomadism with one of my best friends and I thought that I had a very clear idea of this concept.

I have to thank Stephanie for this excellent post, it changed my mind (in a positive way).

Thanks for this article…You mentioned wanting to come clean with the reality of being a digital nomad and yet had a strong feeling of hype :
-your optin form offering to download the funnel that made 400,000 USD
-your tagline “Stephanie Lee is a staff writer at GrowthLab and I Will Teach You to Be Rich…”
That’s where I stopped reading…It’s really strange to admitting that you sold overhyped dreams on being a digital nomad – yet you’re still in the recovery phase, it seems.
Sorry if my comment sounds harsh but it reflects the disappointment I had looking for a thurthful source of information and realising that the article was just thruth to makes clicks and make over hyped offer….

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