The Truth About Being a Digital Nomad

The past several years has seen a huge surge of young, precarious twenty-somethings who have left their office jobs to roam the world with shiny Macbook Pros tucked underarm. Hundreds of articles and blog posts now speckle the web with the digital nomad phenomenon, with many proclaiming at the top of their lungs that this is what everyone needs to be doing; some near-cultish communities have formed hailing the ‘hustle’ beyond concrete-and-glass office doors and — dare I say it — furiously stroking their own egos at the same time.

It’s an incredible honour to be able to explore our world, and I try to remind myself of this fact every single day I’m breathing mountain air in Nepal or being jostled around in cigarette-smoke buses in China. To sustainably live and thrive in places my grandparents have never had the chance to see is humbling beyond belief. But it’s not the perfect end-all solution to anything, and continuing to paint this mirage is dangerous.

I’m a portrait and documentary photographer who writes about things that I find poignant and alarming and wonderful and tragic. But long before embarking on world trips, I was (and still am) a user experience designer. My current clients live in Silicon Valley, Australia and Japan.

A year ago I began to freelance and craft my own business and flew to wintery Canada to live with my love. I’m not at all special or unique by doing this; you can do it too if you want. In my opinion, you only need a few things.

What successful location-independent work requires:

  1. Work that you can do online. Copywriting, translating, design, programming, selling Supreme hats over Amazon, diet consulting, and doing voiceovers for cartoon shows will all work. Fixing someone’s broken stovetop won’t. A Skype consult teaching them how they can do it themselves will.
  2. The resilience to accept uncertainty. In hindsight, the best thing about an office job was knowing you can show up tomorrow and earn exactly the same amount as you did yesterday. You won’t have such a privilege going remote, but that’s okay. It’ll render the procrastination out of your system.
  3. Self-starting. 100% of the work you get or don’t get are because of you.

That’s sort of it, really.

But it’s not superior to a “traditional” job, like those Instagram selfies of digi-nomads sipping smoothies by the beach on Koh Phi Phi with a caption of “My office today! What’s yours? #nomadlife *heart eyes emoji*” will lead you to believe. It can be frustrating, discouraging, utterly confusing, and most of all, lonely. There are no parameters to objectively judge your success by, so you make up your own. In the very beginning, I wasn’t making any income, so success back then could be literally $5. Working while traveling, on the road, location-independently; whatever you’d like to call it — it’s just a different lifestyle to ye olde 9–5.

Like any lifestyle, there are associated problems. Here are some I’d like you to know about.

Realities of being a traveling freelancer:

  1. You have to wear every hat. Sales was a personal weakness of mine and I stumbled through with the awkwardness of a baby giraffe in the beginning. I quite enjoy it now, and I think that’s because I had no choice but to improve. Self-employment stacks a bunch of hats on you (usually one at a time), and there’s no hiding shyly from them. Tax filing, support, building client repertoire — it’s all yours to build.
  2. No checking out at 5pm. A lot of freelancers and entrepreneurs who don’t work around set hours struggle with the work-play boundary, especially if their work is so awesome to them that it becomes play. In my opinion, it’s a lovely problem to have, but the lack of order can lead you to feel consumed, and mentally cluttered.
  3. It’s not a perma-holiday. The biggest misconception, and one I was guilty of, is that travelers who work are constantly having a blast just because they accompany their laptop with a Mai Tai. Work, at the end of the day, is still work. Especially if they’re aiming to build a business or a huge online empire — the vast majority of their time would be spent hustling. Argh, that word.
  4. Working solo can get lonely. :(
  5. You’re hilariously dependent on the internet. When your livelihood is built upon the backbone of one medium, any shutdown of said medium can ensue levels of panic you’re embarrassed to feel. Nepal is notorious for having power outages (load shedding) daily and spotty internet, so I buy 3G data packages for my phone for all my client calls.

Frequently, I find myself struggling to balance the equilibrium of being grateful and keeping shit real. When all is said and done, this lifestyle does incredible things for me because I greatly value being able to roam around at a young age, as well as making big hairy dreams happen, like making short films and collaborating with international creatives.

I have friends who are doing important, world-changing work that is stationed in one city. They are engineers, medical researchers, architects and software developers.

They are building new skyscrapers, making apps for the government, and growing cancer tumour cells for a potential cure. They are creating much more tangible impact than I am. After all, I design stuff that’ll glue you to your phone even more and Instagram.

There will come a day when this won’t make sense anymore, like when I start a company that has its headquarters in one spot, or my love gets sent to Afghanistan by the UN, or my kidlets are too bratty to haul around the world. All of which I am betting on happening. But until then, I am an advocator of location-independent working, whether I like it or not. So, like with all else, I have to tell you the untold. & (Instagram)