“If you need to take a vacation, never come back.”
— Joel Salatin
It feels almost weird to acknowledge it: I make a full-time income using nothing but a laptop and an internet connection. I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, so growth’s been slow, but for the past four years, I’ve made a very livable amount of money for a single dude in his 20s.
I first learned about this new-rich, digital lifestyle in 2012. Back then, I painted the same picture in my daydreams that must decorate millions of desktop backgrounds around the globe: a chair on the beach, an ice-cold drink, and a laptop on my lap. But then, something interesting happened.
I got the travel without the work.
The New American Dream
From September 2012 to May 2013, I studied abroad in Massachusetts. While I was there, I traveled to Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities. I went all around California, to Hawaii, Canada, and even Mexico. After returning home, I also went to London, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney. All in the same year. It was insane.
Especially because, thanks to a generous friend, we lived the high life wherever we went. We lived at the Bellagio in Vegas, drove around in a Mustang 5.0, rented a Jeep to drive up Mauna Kea, and enjoyed the skyline view from the indoor pool in Tokyo.
It was a glimpse into the life every digital nomad dreams of. A glimpse into a life I was as far away from as one could possibly be. I come from a German upper class family of academics. Most of the people I grew up around don’t even do digital and they’re definitely not nomads. On the trip, I thought a lot about the gap between who I was and who the new American dream was reserved for. And then another funny thing happened.
Once I returned home to a cold, German winter, I didn’t want it anymore.
An Unexpected Source Of Happiness
Traveling full-time was a lot of fun. But, just like anything you do full-time, it inevitably turned into a job. We constantly had trains to catch, planes to book, trips to organize, things to pack, and rooms to get out of. If you do anything long enough, the boring parts catch up to you. Always.
You begin to think about your problems, flaws, and what you could have done better. Because no matter where you go, you are still you. The novelty of different places wears off quicker and quicker, until you find yourself lamenting the same issues you’ve had long before you left.
This problem isn’t new. It’s as old as man. From Seneca’s Moral Letters:
You should change your attitude, not your surroundings. You may have crossed the expanse of sea, and as our Virgil says, ‘lands and cities may grow distant’, but your faults will follow you wherever you reach.
This is what Socrates said to a man who was complaining: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you? The same cause is weighing you down now which drove you from home.’ […] You ask me why this flight is not helping you? Because you are in your own company.
And yet, traveling the world at 21 years old was the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because it gave me a sneak peek at the end result of the career path I was about to commit myself to. A chance to realize that, once again, the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.
Still, I was grateful for the experience. Because even though it showed me I had the wrong goals, it gave me a sense of calm when letting my travel desires go. I have seen more of this planet than 99% of folks ever will, and if I die seeing nothing more of it, that’s fine. That’s a powerful source to draw happiness from.
But there was still something about working for myself that wouldn’t let go.
A Digital Settler
As I was studying for my next set of exams after my trip around the globe, I noticed something: The allure of long-term travel was gone, but the attractiveness of a local, regular job hadn’t come back. It slowly dawned on me that maybe, being a digital nomad was a thinly veiled excuse to make the grind of entrepreneurship look more attractive.
I think that’s the big mistake aspiring digital nomads make. Like I did, they chase the right outcome for the wrong reasons. Thanks to my big trip, I can tell you that needn’t be the case: If you lift the veil, entrepreneurship is still beautiful. For as much as we overrate the joys of long-term travel, we’re also too quick to dismiss how much meaning we can draw from growing roots where we’re planted.
Nowadays, my friends commend me for the high-degree-of-freedom life I’ve built. I agree, it’s satisfying. Because just like I can relocate tomorrow, I’m free to go to the same café, sit at the same place, and do my work. In the past five years, I’ve only taken three round trip flights. I spend most of my time in Munich, where I live, and some of it with family back at my parents’ house.
I’m digital without the nomad. What does that make me? A settler? Whether saying no to travel is mad or wise, I don’t know. But I can wholeheartedly say: Most of the happiness you gain from working for yourself comes from having a choice, much more so than from whatever choice in particular you make.
And you don’t need to travel around the world to find the truth in that.