I went full nomad and it (almost) broke me
Entrepreneurs are used to constantly adapting to unpredictable situations. So why did going nomad lead to a magnitude 8 burnout?
🌐 Nomad for 7 months 16 days.
📍 Lisbon | Barcelona | Paris | Bilbao | London | Beirut | Lima | Bogota
✍️ Sign the NOMAD mental health pledge now to continue the conversation and contribute to groundbreaking research 👩🔬
Why does this matter?
Growing numbers of people are leaving their homes to pursue a nomadic life. Exotic Instagram posts betray the challenging reality of travelling while working. We need an honest discussion about staying physically and mentally healthy while chasing our ambitions across the globe.
TL;DR —The upshot
Going nomad changes the rules and you need to look after yourself differently and more. Nomads need to talk about their mental health experiences and smash the stigma.
So you think you can skate?
By January 2017 I knew I was going to do it. I’d spent the past five years dreaming about travelling with a mission. I was about to launch a new impact-driven business. Money in the bank. No attachments. This was it. Time to hit the road.
By May I was bounding up and down the hills of Lisbon in Portugal. Sun shining and smile beaming I was in my element. I’d been practicing for this; blending work and play on short trips to ten countries in 2016.
I’d had burnouts before. I was even proud of them. They were battle scars.
Fast forward seven countries in seven months and I’m writing this from a courtyard in Bogotá, Colombia. Smiling again but with a very different view of myself and newfound empathy for people suffering from stress and anxiety issues.
I’m somewhere on the long slow road of recovery from a major burnout. I’d had burnouts before. I was even proud of them. They were battle scars from working my ass off for years.
Figure skaters in training are taught to ‘skate to fall’; pushing the angles so far that they crash out. It’s how they learn their limits. I thought I’d learnt mine and I wasn’t scared of falling.
It took me months to realise that this burnout was a different order of magnitude to those I’d experienced before. Adopting a nomadic lifestyle had changed the laws of physics and I was an amateur skater again. Except I didn’t know it.
The term ‘burn out’ is dangerously misleading. It suggests visible fire and smoke. In reality the Big Bang when you realise the situation you’re in comes much too late. Burning out is like being the proverbial lobster in hot water. As the temperature rises your self-awareness and ability to save yourself erodes.
Physically my experience of burnout meant poor quality sleep, rock bottom energy levels and leaning progressively on stimulants like coffee, sugar and alcohol. Which of course exacerbated the psychological swings between elated hyper-motivation and crushing depression, punctuated by anxiety.
In retrospect these were huge red flags. But I didn’t spot them for three reasons:
- Nomadic life is hugely variable and it’s difficult to see patterns emerging.
- The experience isn’t constant but cyclical, the cycles increasing in frequency and intensity over time.
- I didn’t have anyone around me close enough to recognise the difference between Settled Sam and Nomad Sam.
Burning out is like being the proverbial lobster in hot water.
At least a month of denial followed my ignorance. I attempted to soldier on, convinced that my lack of motivation was just a natural, temporary down phase that I could overpower. Acceptance only came when someone held up a mirror for me.
I’d just finished a business meeting with a person I consider a role model. After taking a long pause to examine me he simply asked “but seriously, are you ok?” Suddenly the charade of my self deception became glaringly obvious. He could see what I was ignoring: I was a wreck. It hit me like a ten foot wave.
In the following weeks whatever effects I’d been managing to suppress rushed in. I could no longer recognise myself. I’m known as the happiest, most energetic person in the room. Cool under pressure. Always up for a laugh. That’s who I am. Who I know myself to be. So who the hell was this guy?
Rewriting the formula
My formula of the past had never really let me down: Eat properly. Get enough sleep. Exercise regularly. Have some fun. Work hard. Success follows.
It’s a great formula. Why wasn’t it working?
It turns out there’s a bunch of things I was taking for granted in ‘normal’ life that are really important to any person’s psychological wellbeing. They’re the fundamental constants which we tend to forget about because they’re always there. But change them just a little bit and all our calculations are thrown out.
Eat properly + sleep enough + exercise regularly + have fun + work hard ≠ success as a nomad
Everyone knows how unsettling it can be to move home. Living as a nomad the change is relentless. It’s moving home once a month. Sometimes knowing nobody. Figuring out where to work and where to eat. How to get around a new city. Often learning a new language.
Not having a fixed location disrupts the bottom three layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The old formula works as long as you have a stable home and income with close friends or relatives around you. Expecting it to work without those things is like trying to circumnavigate the globe with a map drawn by the Flat Earth Society.
Nomads need a new formula for staying happy and healthy across cities and countries.
Nomads need a new formula for staying happy and healthy across cities and countries. It’s something we need to develop from the sum of our experiences, but here’s what’s keeping me sane.
What’s keeping me sane
I’m hardly an expert on occupational burnout but here’s what’s working for me. Doing the following consistently seems to counteract the stresses of life on the road:
Doubling down on the basics
The absolute baseline has been doubling my attention to the fundamentals of eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and allowing myself downtime.
Deep connection with family and friends
I’ve had to get over the male ego complex and force myself to talk about feelings and emotions regularly. Phone calls suck but they’re better than nothing. New friends are poor substitutes for longstanding relationships.
Practising creativity in any form
When I have a home I play guitar and DJ on vinyl turntables. Unfortunately this stuff doesn’t fit in a backpack. Instead I‘m doing things that don’t need any special kit: singing, writing, and curating a street art blog on Insta.
Disconnected time for reflection
Taking a moment to just be conscious of what’s happening in my life and how I’m feeling has been crucial. I’ve banned myself from reading the news or answering emails on my phone during breakfast to create space to reflect.
Time to quit?
So here I am in Bogotá. In recovery mode but still on the road and growing. I’m unsure whether it’s the promise of unexplored lands or the dread of confinement to one place that’s driving me. But it’s definitely not time to quit. This is just the beginning.
It’s time to have the essential conversation about the physical and mental health of people living as nomads.
In 7 short months I’ve met more than 500 people working to make the world a better place through technology and entrepreneurship. I’ve hiked 100km+ over mountains and through jungles. I’ve made friends from all over the world and learnt so much about their cultures.
The incredibly rich experiences nomads have, both at work and play, makes nomadism a cause worth fighting for. It’s time to have the essential conversation about the physical and mental health of people living as nomads. Let’s start it together.
Peace and love️ global adventurers ✌
✍ Sign the NOMAD mental health pledge now to continue the conversation and contribute to groundbreaking research 👩🔬