As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the world, one group of humans is coping better than others — digital nomads. It turns out that we’re mentally, emotionally, and economically equipped to weather a pandemic. I didn’t anticipate ever writing that sentence, but here we are.
Whether it’s by correlation, causation, or coincidence, digital nomads possess a mindset and skillset that are serving us well during these coronavirus times. Here are some of the reasons why, along with reflections, tips, and takeaways to help you endure the present while designing your ideal post-COVID future.
Daily life hasn’t changed much for us
Digital nomads already worked remotely before the pandemic started, and most of us are self-employed. That means we don’t commute, we don’t depend on a paycheck, and we spend a lot of time self-isolating with our laptops. While everyone has been negatively affected in some way by the pandemic, location-independent freelancers and entrepreneurs haven’t been hit as hard as brick-and-mortar businesses. We may live on Earth, but we work in the cloud. We’re rarely in the same place as our friends and family, and we’ve never met our co-workers, contractors, customers, or suppliers. We don’t lease office space, own homes, or have payroll expenses to meet, so our financial stress is also less (more on that later).
Our travel plans are on hold for the most part, but (contrary to popular belief) few digital nomads live like travel bloggers. Instead, most of us are expats working from home bases in foreign countries. Others make our way around the world in slow travel fashion, spending three to six months in a destination before moving on. As it turns out, the digital nomad lifestyle has more in common with self-isolation than the 9–5 grind.
Digital nomads are holed up in plenty of exotic destinations right now — from Paris to Guatemala to Sri Lanka. But the typical day-in-the-life of a quarantined digital nomad looks a lot like it did before. We eat, sleep, work, and talk to people online. We spend more time hanging out at home than we do posting about the #laptoplifestyle on Instagram. The most notable change is that we can’t go to co-working spaces, coffee shops, restaurants, or meet-ups anymore. And — although our lifestyle is lonely at times — most nomads agree that the pros outweigh the cons.
Familiar with uncertainty and discomfort
For digital nomads, the only constant is change. Our income is always fluctuating, and we’re used to things going wrong (very wrong). We know that little ever goes as planned, and have learned to expect the unexpected. Whether it’s losing clients, getting stranded at airports, contracting malaria, or surviving a tsunami, living through a pandemic is par for the course. We’ve witnessed plenty of suffering and poverty throughout our travels, and we’re just grateful to be here and to be alive.
We’re also used to economic uncertainty. We traded the comforts of full compensation packages and social welfare programs for passport stamps long ago. In exchange for the freedom to travel, we agreed to foot the bill for private healthcare, self-fund our retirement accounts, and pay taxes at home without using any public services. We don’t have the luxury of sick leave, vacation days, or paid time off. But, pre-COVID, we determined that the ability to live life on our terms was worth losing the perceived security and peace of mind that a traditional lifestyle can bring.
Minimalist lifestyle and low cost-of-living
Digital nomads are known for bootstrapping online businesses, and these skills carry over well into hacking our living expenses. We’re fluent in subsisting on $500-1,000/month, so cutting back on our already low overhead is not a problem. We don’t own cars, rent offices, or pay mortgages. We hire independent contractors rather than salaried employees. We live out of suitcases and have little use for Amazon Prime accounts. We spend more of our money on experiences than material things, and we don’t buy anything we can’t carry with us.
That doesn’t mean we’re broke, however. There are plenty of six- and seven-figure nomadic entrepreneurs out there, plus those who live like kings in countries where they can enjoy a high quality-of-life with a low cost-of-living.
The layoffs and economic destruction caused by the quarantine are incomprehensible. But this pain can be eased if you keep your expenses low, plan for the worst, and hope for the best. To reduce future stress, think about how you can rebuild your life and business today with a more flexible, minimalist mindset.
Multiple revenue streams
Like an open relationship, the answer to what a digital nomad does for a living is complicated. Out of necessity, we’ve spun intricate webs of diversified income sources, ranging from a few cents to thousands of dollars per month. We live in constant paranoia that our income could disappear overnight — because it’s happened many times before.
We diversify our income with digital products, drop shipping, blogging, affiliate marketing, freelancing, consulting, investments, Airbnb arbitrage, and more. While some digital nomads have undoubtedly lost some income due to the pandemic, few have lost all of it.
A recent poll in the Global Digital Nomad Network Facebook community of 50,000 people indicated that this strategy is working. When Johannes Voelkner, the founder of Nomad Cruise, asked digital nomads how COVID-19 affected their businesses, most people reported that “nothing changed.” That is a staggering response compared to what is happening across traditional industries.
Personal identity not tied to a job or company
All else held constant, being part of strong company culture can be a beautiful thing. But most digital nomads are fending for ourselves without any specific job title to speak of. When coronavirus hit, few of us had full-time jobs to lose. Because of this, we haven’t felt the pain of being separated from colleagues or severed from long-held career identities. As independent workers and world citizens, we’ve developed a sense of self over time that is independent of where we live or what we do.
I’m not saying that becoming a remote freelancer or digital nomad is the right choice for everyone. I often wish I had more work colleagues and mentors to talk to. But it’s been a relief that — during this challenging time — fewer of us are experiencing a career identity crisis on top of everything else.
Comfortable using remote collaboration tools
While many people and companies have been struggling to work across time zones and change their Zoom backgrounds, digital nomads are fluent in using remote work tools. All of our customers, clients, suppliers, colleagues, partners, supervisors, investors, and other people we work with are remote. In most cases, we’ve never met anyone we work with face to face.
Sure, there are downsides to this, too. It can be harder to make remote work friends or establish a strong company culture across continents. But we also haven’t had to endure a crash course in setting up Slack, holding virtual summits, or coordinating remote meetings. Although, we rarely do meetings.
Pre-existing focus on mindset and mental health
Living an alternative lifestyle requires a certain risk tolerance and a sense of personal accountability and responsibility. Digital nomads recognize that taking care of ourselves is crucial to sustaining our businesses and productivity levels long-term. As such, we spend a lot of time learning how to cultivate a positive mindset and self-motivate while working from home. Achieving this goal involves some form of reading, journaling, meditation, or gratitude practice. As a result, we tend to naturally limit our exposure to negative inputs, such as the mainstream news cycle.
Living as a digital nomad is rarely easy, but it is rewarding. It also has the effect of sharpening one’s resolve to make this lifestyle work under any conditions — however difficult or uncomfortable. We endure the same ups and downs of life as anyone else but often magnified. So, we’ve figured out how to enjoy our own company, cope with challenges alone, and fend off loneliness and depression while far away from friends and family. Connecting with people online is one of the best ways to do so.
The Paradox of Loneliness in the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
It was an hour into the ferry crossing from Santorini to Athens, Greece. But I couldn’t peel myself away from the back…
Less familial pressures at home
The majority of digital nomads are single without kids, which (don’t get me wrong) has its pros and cons. While some of us are single by choice, others struggle for years to find compatible partners.
The long-term impacts of living like perpetual nomads are still undetermined because the technology to support this lifestyle hasn’t been around long enough to study it. Under normal circumstances, we have more personal freedom than we would otherwise but are more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. In pandemic conditions, however, this has been a blessing in disguise. Single nomads are suffering from less familial pressure and household stress while having more personal space.
Living under quarantine conditions is challenging for everyone, but it has to be harder for those balancing work, relationships, and kids at the same time. Long-term, people with families are probably better off than solo travelers. But single digital nomads are undoubtedly under less stress than parents with bills to pay, mouths to feed, and kids to entertain. I am genuinely sympathetic to anyone in this situation. I wish I had more helpful advice to offer, but this is not my area of expertise.
Part of a global community
Despite placing a high value on independence and self-expression, digital nomads rely on the strength of our global community. Like anyone, we crave connection with others. We have been finding it for years in Facebook groups, forums, Reddit threads, and more. While IRL conferences and co-living retreats have taken a backseat for a moment, our diverse, multi-cultural cloud nation remains as connected as ever. It’s been amazing to add a few billion more people to the remote work community in the past month (we didn’t think that would happen until 2035). Truly, the only way to survive these challenging times is together. And digital nomads have remote togetherness down to a science.
Being a digital nomad isn’t just about traveling — it’s about having the freedom to live and work on your own terms. The coronavirus crisis and subsequent economic collapse have proven that the old paradigm doesn’t work anymore. The shift to remote work that was inevitable over the upcoming decades happened faster than anyone expected. This crisis will transform the world in ways that we don’t understand yet. But one thing is for sure. The way to prepare for inevitable uncertainty is by becoming self-reliant to some extent within the context of the collective human race, and broadening your ability to support yourself.
There are plenty of downsides to the digital nomad lifestyle. Still, this global emergency has shown that it’s possible to transform traditional organizations into remote companies almost overnight.
The global landscape is forever changed, but it’s not all bad news. Now is the opportunity for people to decide what they want their new normal to look like. Complaining won’t help. Resisting reality won’t help. Yelling at the TV won’t help. Distracting yourself with Netflix, news, and video games won’t help. Only action will make a difference. Take this time to reflect on the past and set your plan for the future into motion now. What was previously a choice is now a necessity.
You don’t need to become a digital nomad to live a fulfilled life. But you do need to question past assumptions and make some changes to thrive in the post-COVID world. The answer will be different for everyone, but you have the power to design your life and make it happen. If we can do it, so can you.