How I went from broke college kid to traveling the world as a Digital Nomad

By putting my education into my own hands, I was able to create incredible opportunities for myself

Danny Sapio
May 25, 2018 · 10 min read
Nomading in Innsbruck, Austria

While in my second year of undergrad, I was feeling stuck and confused about my future. I was working part-time, making $150 per week while accumulating debt pursuing a degree that I wasn’t passionate about. I hoped to achieve big things in my life but was unsure what steps I needed to take to get ahead.

I had just transferred to a much bigger university than my previous school and didn’t know anyone. To make matters worse, I was living in an off-campus apartment with a random guy who didn’t even attend my school, and I had to commute to classes every day.

My situation was the result of poor planning on my part, but regardless of how I got where I was, I wasn’t living the exciting college life that I had hoped or expected I would be.

Although I eventually made friends and acclimated to my situation, I knew that I couldn’t stand to remain in college for the duration of my 4-year degree. I knew I would have to face the reality of my situation, sooner or later. The truth that a marketing major wasn’t something I was interested in pursuing as a career and that I was only in college because I didn’t know what else to do at that stage of my life.

Social pressure was the main reason I went to college in the first place, and staying made it appear to my parents and friends from high school that I was doing something with my life.

I knew that even if I managed to make it to graduation, I would be receiving a marketing degree that would be obsolete by the time I received it.

I had to switch my mindset from waiting for the right information to be given to me, to being an autodidact and seeking out the proper knowledge and education.

If I wanted to escape college and still succeed in my life, then I knew I needed a plan. Dropping out without a plan would likely result in me working minimum wage jobs and living at home, which wouldn’t be an improvement to college life by any stretch.

I knew I needed two things before I could drop out

  1. A marketable skill — most college dropouts that fail don’t have one.

I couldn’t enter the real world without something of value to offer. Without skills, I was only worth the hours that I was willing to work. Not to mention that I’d be replaceable by anyone willing to do the same work as me for less.

Marketable skills are what college and universities are supposed to be providing to their students, but they often fail to do so. The good news is that it’s not the 1800s or even the 1900s anymore — in today’s world, most skills can be acquired online for free. Unless you’re studying to become a doctor — you probably shouldn’t learn how to perform surgery from Youtube videos.

The best part about the internet is that you can use it to learn skills and to find people who are willing to pay for those skills.

The majority of people hiring freelancers on the internet don’t care about degrees; they care about results. I knew that if I could build a portfolio of work around a skillset, then it would be just as good or better than earning a college degree.

Around the time that I was considering dropping out of college, I heard a quote that resonated with me:

“A fixed mindset person believes that they are bad at something, and that is their destiny. A growth mindset person believes that they are what they are now but can be better in the future. They can work on it.”

I don’t remember who said this, but I remember hearing it and having it stick with me. I knew that I could change my situation by learning to grow as a person and a professional. Who I was today didn’t need to be who I was for the rest of my life.

“It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish!”

Having a growth mindset is essential when learning any new skill because let’s face it, you’re probably going to suck at it for a while.

Here’s an exercise I recommend for anyone who wants to learn a new skill:

Learn how to juggle three tennis balls if you don’t know how to already. Seriously, I know it isn’t a marketable skill (at least I don’t think it is…), but it’s a skill. You will likely be terrible at juggling for the first 20–30 minutes of practicing. However, if you’re persistent, regardless of your level of athletic ability, I guarantee you will be able to juggle if you practice every day for a few days.

Watch a few youtube videos and learn how to juggle!

Having the discipline to persevere through the frustration of learning something as silly as juggling will teach your brain that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

2. I needed money &/or a source of income

At the time, I was working 20 hours a week as a shoe salesman at Bon-Ton. Unless I wanted shoe sales on a 2% commission to be my career (and salary), then I had to find a better way to earn money.

I decided to become focused on learning a specific skill set. I started considering different skills that I could learn online and get paid as a freelancer or consultant.

Here are a few things I considered learning how to do online:

  • Video editing
  • Writing Copy
  • Photographer
  • Photo editing
  • Programming
  • Graphic design
  • Online marketing (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.)
  • Drop-shipping
  • Affiliate marketing (Amazon)
  • Blogging
  • Stock trading (day trading, options trading)
  • Making Youtube videos
  • Buying and selling on eBay or Amazon

I narrowed the list down to skills that would be the quickest and easiest to get started with that also had the most income potential. I strived to acquire as much knowledge as I could around what was involved in performing these marketable skills effectively.

I remember sitting in my apartment, considering all of these options. I had a little bit of a background in graphic design, but I was at a point where I could have switched to something new and would have never looked back. I’d only dabbled a bit in photoshop at that point, so I was not a graphic designer, but I had a fascination with different logos and graphics — specifically mascot logos for sports teams.

I watched a few Youtube videos about everything from the list to familiarize myself with the knowledge that was involved in becoming proficient at the skills and achieving my desired results.

I don’t remember if I ever solidified a specific choice for a skill that I wanted to learn. I became interested in all of the things from the list but decided to pursue graphic design as something that I would charge people money for.

Graphic design had the smallest barrier to entry for me, and I could learn new design skills in as little as 15 minutes by watching a Youtube video. An example of this is the storefront mockups that I would create. I learned how to make mockups like the one below by watching a 5 minute Youtube video. These mockups would take me less than 5 minutes to complete. I started providing this as a service for small businesses on, and they would pay me between $5-$20.

Photoshop building mockup

Once I started getting real results ($$$) from learning design skills on Youtube, it started a snowball effect. I began learning new, more complex skills that demanded a higher premium. My results were directly tied to my willingness to become proficient at different designs, skills, and disciplines.

I became addicted to progress because every time I learned a new skill, I could make money for providing it as a service. It also felt good to see improvement in the designs that I was creating.

For example, removing the background from a photo in Photoshop might be worth $5–$15, but creating an original logo for a business in Illustrator could be worth hundreds or even thousands.

It was at this point that I realized all I needed to do to earn a full-time income was to keep expanding my skillset as a graphic designer.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In plain English, there was no magic in this process. I would find work that I liked on websites like Dribbble and Behance, then try and replicate it or watch tutorials on how to achieve similar results.

I spent the majority of my free time designing for fun or friends for free.

Once I felt confident in my abilities with a new design task, I would post a gig for it on Fiverr. If you’re interested in learning more about Fiverr and how I started making $1,000 per week using it, then click here to read my article.

This is a few month progression of a mascot logo as I evolved as a designer

After a few months, I was receiving a steady stream of orders on Fiverr. People were willing to pay me real money for my work, and I was starting to make good money as a freelancer. I didn’t have enough time in the day to balance college classes and my freelance design gig — so I dropped out of college. It was a liberating decision. I knew that I could always go back to college at some point if I needed to, but that was by no means my intention.

Becoming a Digital Nomad

Since I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be able to travel the world at some point in my life and make money while doing it. While daydreaming about the idea in my high school classrooms, I was unaware that there was a community of awesome people already doing it called digital nomads.

Krabi, Thailand

After dropping out and enjoying a few months of working from my apartment, I started researching places to live and work remotely. I wanted to go somewhere exciting to shake up my boring day-to-day routine. I inevitably stumbled upon a blog that listed Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia, as the most affordable and best places to work remotely. They called Chiang Mai “The Digital Nomad Capital.” I quickly discovered that there is a growing community of remote workers living in affordable cities in South East Asia, getting by on only a few hundred dollars per month. This was precisely what I needed to get a fresh start and begin living the life of freedom that I desired.

As I continued my research into digital nomads, I came across a program called Hacker Paradise that had an upcoming trip to both of those locations. I was content with going to Thailand or Bali on my own, but knowing that there was a facilitated program waiting for me when I landed gave me (and my parents) peace of mind. I decided to apply for their upcoming three month trip to South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia. I was accepted into the program and decided that it was the perfect next step for my life.

A few months later, I left the USA for the first time in my life and flew halfway around the world to a tiny island called Jeju off the coast of South Korea to join Hacker Paradise.

Hacker Paradise — Chiang Mai, Thailand

When I arrived on my first Hacker Paradise trip, I had a lot of adapting to do, but for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who understood tech and shared similar passions as mine.

After my three month trip on Hacker Paradise’s digital nomad retreat, I decided to live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for three months with a Vietnamese friend that I met in the program. I spent those three months immersing myself in Vietnamese culture and trying to understand their way of life as a foreigner.

After leaving Vietnam, I continued to travel for another six months, for a little over a year total with short stops at home. In my year traveling as a nomad, I visited South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. I had so many incredible experiences along the way that I could never have imagined in my college days. I had the opportunity to go skiing in the Austrian Alps, cliff jump in South Korea, see the lantern festival in Thailand, meet people from all walks of life — and enjoy so many other unforgettable experiences.

Learning new skills and taking responsibility for the outcome of my education and career allowed me to have complete freedom of where, when, and with whom I worked.

“When you leave all your so-called certainties behind and force yourself to use your brain in the real world, instead of in school, where tests are standardized, you grow like a weed.” — Jose Schrijver

Thanks for reading!

👋 Let’s be friends! Follow me on Dribbble and connect with me on LinkedIn. Follow me here on Medium as well for more design-related content.

Danny Sapio

Written by

Product Designer at Skookum, Entrepreneur, and Phở Enthusiast from Denver, CO. Co-Founder of Confetti —

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