For the blog of CreativeLive.com, here’s a post I just wrote about the challenges of being a digital nomad. Original post here.
Is the Digital Nomad Lifestyle Right For You?
It’s not just a fleeting trend–the digital nomad way of life is definitely on the rise. Fed up with being tied down, people are quitting their 9 to 5 jobs, selling or giving away their belongings (including their car and house!) and choosing a life of travel while working online to earn income.
This life of endless travel might sound like a dream come true, a fantastic adventure, a constant vacation. But let me emphasize that being a digital nomad does not mean, as some may think, that you’re on vacation. What is different for a digital nomad, however, is that your workspace has transformed from office cubicle to a beach bar on a Thai island, or a cafe in Budapest, or wherever you please. In fact, I’m writing this post in a cafe in the city of Brasov in Romania–a country that boasts one of the fastest internet speeds in the world.
As a digital nomad for the past 5 years, I’ve been earning my income as a freelance writer while living and traveling in different countries. I’ve rented apartments, been a Workaway volunteer, a house sitter and sometimes a Couch Surfer.
Every digital nomad has his or her own unique story, and there’s no special formula or specific process that will bring you into this lifestyle. But there are certain things that we digital nomads do have in common in our daily lives that you’ll have to deal with if you want to make this lifestyle work for you:
You never know where you’ll end up in a month or two.
The world is your oyster if you’re a digital nomad…right? Yes and no. Having to decide on the next place to live for a month or 3 isn’t always easy, although certain cities, like Chiang Mai and Budapest, tend to attract many digital nomads for the sense of community and low cost of living. The biggest challenge for Jodi Ettenberg, a former lawyer who’s been on the road 7 years now as a freelance writer and photographer, is the psychological one. “It’s a very privileged problem to have, but the paradox of choice–where to go, and the steps needed to set up there–become a tyranny of choice when you don’t have structure. I think it’s a wonderful thing, to learn how to live with more uncertainty. But for me, it’s the challenge of what comes next and how to process it when I come from a much more structured environment,” says Ettenberg.
You’re far away from family and friends.
Homesickness is a common theme among digital nomads, and it mostly hits you once the newness and excitement of the nomadic life wears off. Some digital nomads make it a point to go home once a year, especially for the holidays, but that’s not always possible. In that case, you’ll have to make do with Skype video calls–and if you’re always in an interesting and attractive destination, it’s not so hard to convince people to come and visit you.
You’re tethered to a reliable internet connection.
No wifi, no money—game over. Although some digital nomads start off with a decent amount of savings from their previous jobs or from selling their belongings, you will still need to keep some money rolling in to fund your nomadic lifestyle. And for a digital nomad, that means living in places with reliable wifi. But if your dream is to live and work in a remote or off-grid location, it is possible: digital nomads sometimes purchase a USB modem to access the internet or, if possible, use their smartphone as a hotspot. However, there are ways to manage a short term stay offline during your travels. Especially if you are in a country with a low cost of living, you can seek out a Workaway or house sitting gig where you won’t need to pay rent for the duration of your stay. And if you aren’t paying rent, you won’t need to earn as much. You could use the time to work on side projects that don’t require you to be online, like writing an ebook or experimenting with different photography techniques.
You can’t get attached to any place.
Related to the inability to choose the perfect destination is the inability to stay in one destination. If you want to live on the move, you’ve got to be okay with quickly detaching from one place and readjusting to a new temporary home and the culture that comes with it. Many digital nomads are constantly on the move simply because their visa runs out, although some move to follow the summer weather. But if you do find a place that you don’t want to leave, then congratulations, you’ve graduated to the status of “expat”–which is secretly what many digital nomads long for, especially the long term ones!
You have no stuff because you have no home to keep it in.
This is definitely a positive life lesson in detaching from materialism and allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the transitory state that we live in. But if you want a pet cat, your guitar and loop pedal, or your collection of books with you—forget about it. That’s the life you’ve left behind. Your temporary home sweet home now changes on a monthly basis (thanks Airbnb), and when you spread out the contents of your 60 liter backpack, they hardly fill up a corner of the bedroom: neutral-colored clothing that’s good for layering, 2 pairs of shoes, your computer and camera, a journal and maybe one or two light books that you’ve already read a couple times. Alyssa Pinsker, a traveling freelance writer and author of the forthcoming book “Girl Gone Global”, says that living out of a suitcase is the hardest part of the digital nomad lifestyle. “I mail home my clothes via seamail every so often and buy new ones.”
You’ll make new friends just to leave them behind.
Digital nomads don’t usually roam the world aimlessly. Most will have a strategy to their slow travel, like spending one to three months per city, which allows for a better understanding of that destination and enough time to develop a sense of stability. But this still means that even as you have just begun your stay in a city, you might make friends with someone who is just about to leave. Or maybe you meet someone at the end of your stay in a city. It’s certainly easy to meet up and stay in touch with other digital nomads via the growing number of websites, apps and Facebook groups designed for digital nomads, but it’s not always easy to say good-bye.
Despite the challenges, I think this lifestyle is definitely eye-opening and enlightening. And most digital nomads would probably agree that the most important and incredible benefit of living this way is the flexibility and freedom we have to choose how and where we want to live and work. If you decide to embark upon this unforgettable adventure as a digital nomad, you should remember that you can shape it in any way that suits you—but you can also stop traveling anytime you want.