Digital Nomads: The dark side of freedom

It is time to take off the rose-tinted glasses regarding the life of a digital nomad. I dare to take a look into the depths of the digital nomadic abyss. But this time my insight comes from an insider, someone who actually lives location independently — which helps to provide a worthwhile perspective.

Many, who strike out, to race around the world as digital nomads, at first are under the impression to leave their grey daily grind behind them and dive into a world full of rainbows and unicorns. That’s how I also had felt.

We thereby often forget, that we always take along ourselves as well as our character traits, our mental and physical weaknesses and our fears and worries. A change of location allows us to forget these problems for a while, but they come back as a boomerang, and then hit us even harder.

Routines outside of routines

The problems stay but the routines we have developed at home, which have been working up to now, are gone suddenly. They are hard to establish on the road and many people get out of step without them, become unproductive and let themselves go. It is arduous and takes a long time to learn how to establish routines when frequently changing the location.

Many want to escape the routines and thus find the location independent life so fascinating. That’s how I felt too. Routines quickly become boring for me. I always have to break out of them. But the truth is: As crazy it may sound, it is essential to create routines within the lack of structure.

If not regarding the place, then regarding the time. If not regarding the whole day, then at least regarding the mornings and evenings. It almost hurts me to say this, but routines are essential for digital nomads who want to build or operate a successful business.

But it doesn’t stop there. Since money doesn’t come by itself, worries begin when the money is almost depleted. These worries about money don’t simply disappear, not even after the income level is reached, which one had at the last job. As a self-employed person it is essential to earn significantly more long-term. One has to save for old age, reinvest in the business, pay freelancers, pay taxes, and so forth. All this money management is cause for concern.

Most of the self-employed people don’t let go of those existential worries, because the perception changes with increasing income. After all, when is someone “secure”? One has to learn, to live with those worries and not take them to bed.

The Downsides of Personal Freedom

It is there, the dark side of the location independent lifestyle. Not only on a business level but also on a personal one. It may look a little different for each individual, but it is absolutely recognisable for every nomad. Absolutely nobody lives in a funky rainbow world, but everyone likes to present himself as such to the outside world. This lies in the nature of mankind, and even more so in the nature of the blogger (a reason why Facebook is so successful).

There are digital nomads, who work and travel in such a manner that makes one ask when the first heart attack is going to happen. There are nomads who cannot handle their existential fears even after years plus they sleep poorly on a regular basis.

I know nomads who have lost their inner peace completely and seem to be on Speed. Nomads, who couldn’t take the high level of freedom and have become alcoholics or swallow other substances daily.

Nomads whose social contacts are limited to Facebook and Tinder and who consume their residencies like McDonalds- Menus, without dealing with the people surrounding them.

Admittedly, these are all extreme examples. But they are real. Worldwide, they can even be seen here in the nomad hotspot Chiang Mai. In the Cafés, the bars and the Coworking Spaces. Driven persons, insecured ones, destitute ones, displaced persons. But certainly, there are also happy people, confident ones, individuals at peace with themselves. Everything is represented. Just how it is in real life!

Such as every decision, the decision for a location independent lifestyle is a trade-off. There are many, many positive aspects to it. But a high level of freedom requires also a high level of self-responsibility.

Look at myself

When I take a look at myself, I went through many ups and downs during the last five years. Existential fears, restlessness, internal unrest, loss of friendships… I went through a lot of the things described above. Always with the hope and the drive to leave all that behind me one day. Not often, but every now and then, some of those things still overtake me.

Not only digital nomads, but also other self-employed people and entrepreneurs know those worries and problems. These are quite typical problems within this group. The location independence doesn’t improve them either. Some of the problems are even intensified by it.

At the beginning there is always fear that not enough money comes in. One works their head off in front of the laptop. Working 12 or 13 hours, not being able to sleep.

Eventually it flows a little bit better. But the initial difficulties lie deep. One continues to work hard, doesn’t allow himself a break. Suddenly the body says: Stopp!

One listens to his body, but falls into the next extreme. Hardly working anymore. One aquires a taste for constant travel after all.

After a while the savings are minimal and one stands again at the beginning. This time one works even harder, but got so used to traveling that now works 14 hours and changes places every third week. Stress level 100 percent.

One day, one gets the hang of it financially, ample amounts of money come in. Finally it is possible to save a nice amount. Everything seems to run smoothly. If only one didn’t get used to the restlessness and the high working level, he could shift down a gear, but that doesn’t happen. After all, the bad times are still stuck in one’s head.

Reading a book in the evenings, going for a run or sitting with friends on the balcony while talking about trivial things and laughing? It’s not easy to make up your mind to finally to do these things. The laptop is so close and there are so many things to do.

One realizes, that it is time to live more again. To come to rest. To hit the breaks. But how is it possible to achieve this without falling into the other extreme?

One remembers the smell of the ocean, bike tours and the feeling of boredom. Boredom wasn’t so bad after all. And also Sunday afternoons, chilling snuggled in front of the TV and watching Hollywood movies — there was something about it.

Yes, it didn’t broaden the intellect or scaled the business, but it was relaxing. It felt cosy.

Time optimization and time management. Efficiency. Pomodoro — Technique. A guilty conscience of wasting time. Not every digital nomad is trimmed to perform total efficiency, but the trend is present in the scene and has to be enjoyed with caution.

To find the middle between those extremes is not so easy. The middle. What is the middle? Where is my healthy point of wellbeing? Where can I finally arrive? Come down! Take up a stable rhythm.

Home, Homeland, Ties and Co.

As digital nomads, we move from place to place and enjoy the freedom of the ability to start moving whenever we get itchy feet. Though for exceedingly few, this concept is a permanent solution.

Few nomads aim a career as a hermit long-term, they are normally just simply adventurous.

To be stuck in only one place one day seems almost unthinkable. Nevertheless, one longs for fixed reference points. One who carries the digital nomadic lifestyle permanently too far, such as a Perpetual Traveller, and doesn’t manage to bounce back will inevitably become a hermit in the second half of life. This is my theory.

Hermits are people, who establish themselves with their body of thought or their lifestyle (of one’s own accord) solitarily, no matter if geographically, socially or mentally. To become a hermit can be a conscious decision and I wish all the best of luck on earth to the one who takes this path. But one has to be conscious of the full scope of things.

It is different at the age of 20 or 30. A life of a permanent traveller doesn’t mean to make cutbacks regarding social contacts. But when the storm and stress period comes to an end, one longs for real connections. Family. It doesn’t matter in which form. It can be picture-book family, rainbow family or nomad family.

Nevertheless, a location independent lifestyle doesn’t mean that one has to necessarily go back to his 2-room flat somewhere in Germany, has to buy a kitchen and dismiss his former life as „a phase“. This black- and white-thinking sickens me. Why not look for the middle here as well? Wherever this personal middle lies.

Even I haven’t found this middle yet, but I feel how I more and more approach this middle over the course of the last years. This awareness calms me.

The freedom to decide myself when and where I drop my anchor

After all and especially for a nomad the following applies: Once one is completely free in the choice of residence one can choose his home. One can even have more than one home, or associate it to people rather than to geographical locations.

Men are herd-animals. Even with one (or several) homes it is possible to travel. After all, location independence is a pure matter of the head, and has nothing to do with placing many, many boxes somewhere in basements, or the fact if you have or don’t have a tenancy agreement, or are registered in Germany or to have a Miles and More Card.

It is only about you here and the things, which help you to design a life according to your wishes. Listen to your inner voice! What do you actually want?

Lots of freedom = Lots of stupidities

A location independent lifestyle means a maximum of freedom. You can design your life freely. Decide for yourself, when, where and how to work, as long as money comes in.

That also means that you can run up against a wall: To go parting every night. To feel permanently lonely, and to feel uprooted. To feel depressed. To feel panic.

A life with the maximum of freedom requires a maximum level of self-responsibility. An uprooted life requires self-confidence.

Who is unsteady on their feet, or unstable mentally, should not find the salvation in the life as a digital nomad, but rather stay well clear of this lifestyle and first take care of their own inner life before looking for salvation in the wide world.

Julia Roberts in „Eat Pray Love“ can walk around in Bali as much as she wants: To find oneself requires not a location independent life, but an especially large amount of healthy self reflection. For that, one doesn’t need the Indian Ocean, it is also possible at the quarry pond in Dortmund.

And now? Enough ranting, Tim?

I actually don’t want to raise my index finger. I only want to give you an insight into the reality. Into my last four years. Into that, what I could observe in other nomads. Unpolished.

There are no rainbows and unicorns.

More freedom, yes, there is. But certainly not fewer problems. Location independence is only a bigger screen. More room for ideas and dreams but you still have to paint the picture yourself. And if you cannot paint, then the picture will not become more beautiful because of a bigger screen.

I love the location independent lifestyle and will certainly continue living it. Sometimes I love it more, sometimes less, however, it suits my life situation. How my life situation and I currently need it.

Presumably I will become more settled again. I yearn a little bit for it. But not settled in the way most of the people interpret to be settled. Still a lot on tour. Multi-local. There, where people are, who pick me up from the airport.

With this article, I don’t want to spoil your path of becoming a digital nomad. Also, I don’t want to put off living your life decision. What I want to show you though, is that there is no „completely or not at all“. Don’t copy blindly what others live by example. Question the rainbow backdrop. Listen to yourself and to your fears. Face them, but don’t get carried away!

And if you like metaphors as much as I do, then take those with yourself as well: A lifestyle as a digital nomad is not your ticket to paradise. It is the beginning of a journey with an uncertain goal. Where you arrive eventually, is up to you.

I would pick up this ride again anytime.