Digital Nomadism and the Rest of Us

One can make any place home relatively easily. It’s been 3 weeks “on the road” for me, away from my base of San Francisco. The comforts of home are still mostly available. I’ve got my local corner store nearby. I’ve done my laundry on time without fail, approximately once each week. I wasted no time joining the local gym. I’ve got access to great wifi. I work on my day job, my side projects, and I write. I find time for newfound friends as well as time alone for reading and resting. Basically, I’ve settled into a routine of sorts.

I’ve been doing this for a while — first as a consultant traveling throughout the US, and most recently for a job that has me overseas once every six weeks. Have laptop. Will travel. Must adapt.

I’m currently in the middle of a stint with Hacker Paradise in Portugal. This trip is different because instead of traveling alone, or with a group of people similarly waiting to go back somewhere, I’m with people who may never go back. They are “digital nomads”. Some of them move every few weeks, some stay a couple months in one place, but the goal is always to move and to learn. Some of them do keep a home base, many with parents. But they’re all working, and they’re all productive. This isn’t just a vacation… is it?

The term “digital nomad” irked me at first. When I was working remotely, I’d travel in small packs with others of my kind. Sure, most of us had a home and (some semblance of) a plan. How are these people I’m with today any different?

It’s hard to track down the origin of digital nomadism, especially because it seems the lifestyle has existed in different forms for quite some time. Throughout history, writers & artists have traditionally been “location independent” (another term coined to describe a person who works remotely, supposedly by Lea Woodward in 2007). But with the dawn of the internet & wireless-enabled laptops in the late 90s, location independence started to become a real thing. In 1997, Tsugio Makimono and David Manners published a book they called, simply put, Digital Nomad. They argued that technology would change the way a large portion of our population works in the future, in that as more and more people take up technology jobs, collaboration tools would become more advanced and the internet would continue to rule. The traditional 9–5 office job would slowly decline over time.

The notion soon turned into a movement. The social and sharing economy cemented itself as a fixture in our world, thanks to the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Travel blogs exploded: young 20-somethings hell bent on exploring the world, sharing their experiences with anyone who would listen, hoping to inspire others to do the same. Finding oneself became the name of the game. Recently, social networks dedicated to people who want to stay on the road have started to pop up. One of the most well known is Nomad List, a service that provides a guide to the best cities for digital nomads, ranked by factors like cost of living, fun, and safety. You can also pay a fee to join a slack group, #nomads, which gives you unlimited access to anyone who considers themselves a part of the “digital nomad” community. It seems like this is the true governing body for the nomads.

It’s easy to be cynical and immediately dismiss today’s nomadic way of living as a thing for trust fund babies who want to gallivant around the world. Sure, there will always be people who do the nomad thing as means to a getaway. But the lifestyle is in some ways more a product of the fact that now, as Makimono and Manners predicted in ’97, most tech workers don’t need to be in an office. And further, it’s an issue of supply and demand for these workers. When I was a consultant, it was easier and cheaper for a company to pay for someone with my skill set to fly to them each week, rather than spending the time and money to find someone local to bring on as a salaried employee (which has a very high onboarding cost associated with it). So if you’re a remote worker with these skills, with remote clients… you can live where you want and travel as you please.

When I think back to my days on the road, I would have loved to have something like #nomads to fall back on. I remember when I lived in Dallas for a long-term project, my daily routine consisted of driving my jeep to Starbucks, working, going to the gym, and stopping at Whole Foods on the way back for dinner. Maybe going with coworkers for dinner and drinks (mmm… tex-mex) once or twice a week. But really, I wanted to meet people local to the area. I didn’t know how to do that. I felt like an outsider. So I stayed inside. Community has always been a theme in nomad packs throughout history, so why should digital nomadism stray from that? Now, the lifestyle has been given a name and formalized. Support groups dedicated to the nomadism can start to flourish. That’s pretty cool.

I support the digital nomad “movement”. However, I’ve realized — and it took me years of being on and off the road, plus time with Hacker Paradise to get here — is that I don’t aspire to be a digital nomad. Maybe I did at one point. There are so many amazing things about living this way. You meet intelligent and inspiring people who have seen more, or aspire to see more, than most of the people in your home network. You go on adventures with these people in exciting parts of the world. And you get to know yourself, for better or for worse. You journey solo, you assimilate to a new culture alone, you react to situations that are less than ideal on your own. You learn more about what makes you tick, what makes you happy, and what you need to truly feel at home, even if it’s exactly what you left behind. That might be the biggest surprise of all, and perhaps what nomadism is truly about.

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