Why Becoming a Digital Nomad Didn’t Give me the Freedom I Longed For
Freedom has always been a fundamental value of mine.
In my last job, I was a C-level executive at a small startup and maintained a very high degree of autonomy and independence. I was free to choose my own project-related goals, the people I wished to work with on these projects, and even the timelines by which most of these projects operated.
On top, I was able to negotiate an agreement which allowed me to work remotely for 2 weeks out of each quarter.
When even this failed to feed my freedom-hungry soul, I set myself on convincing the CEO of the company to enforce core working times of 10 am to 4 pm. That way, aside from required office time, people would be able to work whenever (and wherever) they chose.
This allowed me great flexibility during the day. I was able to work on my own side business during peak times (which, for me, were the early mornings), instead of rushing to the office at 8 am. I also used my “mental dead time” in the afternoons to go to the gym (rather than waste them counting down the hours while having cup after cup of coffee).
I was as independent as it gets (at least for someone employed in a dedicated office).
But still, I felt so trapped. I craved total, uninhibited freedom — the ability to choose what to do, when to do it, and where to do it.
My inability to choose all those things simultaneously caused me a lot of pain. Instead of seeing the freedom I had already managed to create for myself and others through consistent peak performance and negotiation, I just couldn’t stop seeing the prison I was in.
And it killed me.
I still had to work on Mondays, even if I felt like doing anything but. I still had to go to the office, even when I’d rather stay home or work from Bangkok. And I still had to give periodic updates and report to a boss.
I longed to find the ultimate freedom.
I figured financial and geographical independence would be the way to go. After all, having nobody to report to or manage (besides myself) would be equivalent to getting to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted… Right?
So I became a solopreneur and digital nomad.
For the first few weeks, I was psyched.
It was mid-November (probably the worst time to be in Europe,) when I decided to take a flight to Bali.
Once I was there, I woke up without an alarm clock every day and worked from my guesthouse bed for a few hours. When I got hungry enough, I’d have a big portion of gluten-free sweet potato pancakes at one of the hipster cafés down the road. I’d then continue to work on whatever seemed right, until I felt I was done, and ended the day by spending a few hours on the beach. Life was good.
Fast-forward a couple of months and I had decided to move to Berlin with my partner (who was also a digital nomad). We were renting an Airbnb in the city center, chosen for its ideal home-office conditions.
Like many digital nomads, we chose to extend our stay in Berlin for a couple of months, to avoid having to pack up and get back on the road too soon. For us, being a nomad meant having the freedom to choose where to stay, and for how long. We weren’t interested in ticking off as many cities as possible.
We felt like the luckiest people on earth.
We woke up together every day and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast — and occasionally some extended time in bed.
I especially loved the big kitchen in our Airbnb; it allowed us to have freshly-made healthy meals 3 times a day. The freedom to cook our own food (instead of grabbing something to go in a rush for lunch) was the ultimate luxury for me.
I had even eliminated the need to commute every day.
I had given myself the freedom to design my own self-dictated schedule from the bottom up. I was ecstatic.
But soon, something strange began to happen.
When I felt tired and unproductive in the afternoons, I stopping taking my usual break from work and instead pushed through until 6pm. When I woke up feeling a little off, I didn’t go to yoga class to center myself before heading straight to my computer.
When a friend visited, I didn’t take the day off to show her around Berlin, but met her for an after-work drink only. When my mum called me at 11am on a Friday, I didn’t pick up. I called her back during my designated “time off”.
I had built my own prison.
My own rules and routines had become my chains. My “shoulds” and “musts” had become the walls that confined me. And my guilt had become the prison guard, taking away the freedom I had fought so hard to gain.
That’s when I realized something: Discovering the ultimate freedom has nothing to do with becoming financially — or locationally — independent.
The ultimate freedom can only be achieved by liberating the mind.
We can remove all our external dependencies, but if we don’t free our mind, it will continue to keep us trapped with thoughts like:
“You should get up early so you can get ahead.”
“You should work at least 10 hrs a day; then maybe you’ll be able to get enough done.”
“You should not watch Netflix during the week; that’s time you could use to read emails.”
As with all emotions, guilt can act as a powerful internal signalling system which, in this case, causes us to feel guilty when we do something that goes against our own morals and rules.
That’s a great thing, because most of our own rules are there for a reason. They can be an essential part of our freedom and are therefore foundational to our happiness, health and success. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made them in the first place.
But true freedom is having the ability to choose when — and when not — to follow the rules.
The ultimate freedom lies in our ability to allow ourselves to create rules for ourselves and follow them because we want to. And on some days, to not follow them because we don’t want to — without feeling guilty about it.
There is true freedom to be found in questioning and rejecting our own rules.
By letting go of the guilt that keeps us trapped and choosing our thoughts wisely, we can achieve true internal freedom.
Most days I will continue to work from 9 to 5, despite calling myself a digital nomad, because it is my choice to do so. I do it because I want to persevere even when I get tired. And I have found it helpful to define designated working times.
But there are days when I choose to go against my own rules and exercise my freedom to do whatever I want — wherever and whenever I want.
And now, I can do so and feel good about it. Because when my mind is free, I am free.