I recently read a very interesting article on why founder of NomadList and RemoteOK, Pieter Levels, decided to leave his digital nomad lifestyle to return to work and live in Amsterdam. According to the article:
Ditching the office to work in paradise as a “digital nomad” has a hidden dark side
The author of the piece, Michael Thomas, writes that he himself ‘flamed out’ of life as a digital nomad due to loneliness, and that Levels, after three years on the road, made the decision to come home to Amsterdam
“I was standing in my apartment in Medilla, Colombia looking out the window, and I realized I don’t know anyone here,” he recalled. “I was thinking this is not what I should be doing. Like, this looks really great if I take a photo, but I don’t feel any connection.”
Is this more common than we think? Obviously digital nomads are first and foremost digital professionals, often working in any industry such as translating, blogging or marketing where self publicity is key. You can’t be a shrinking violet and disappear into cyberspace or how will you find and keep clients? Nor can you portray a sad or boring image of yourself. No one wants to read a travel blog about how you got sick from eating dodgy street food and had to stay in your hostel throwing up for a week, or how you spent your first month in Thailand crying to your mum on Skype. Instead, they want to see endless pictures of you sipping from a coconut on a paradise beach, or scaling world-famous monuments in between pumping out articles/websites/graphics that make you effortless millions.
So the pressure is on to produce the best Instagram photos and blog posts about how much fun you’re having 24 hours a day, how you live in the best and most beautiful places whilst looking amazing and earning huge money with little effort.
Is this the reality?
Well, just like with any social media – no, it’s not. The whole concept behind Facebook, Insta and co. is to produce a perfect image of yourself and your life. The sad, soggy sandwich you actually had for lunch doesn’t sell, whereas the multi-layered, multi-coloured vegan superfood salad in a mason jar that you ate that one time does. No one wants to see how you look on Monday morning on the tube to work, but your carefully-crafted selfie after 3 hours of hair and makeup gets tonnes of likes. All the Insta-famous people out there are spending unbelievable amounts of time to get the perfect shot – using lighting, camera-trickery, Photoshop, filters, angles and clever arrangements to make everything look more special than it really is. Ask yourself this? If all these girls were having such an incredible time splashing under a waterfall or sunning themselves on a beach, would they really need to tell you about it on social media all the time? The truth is, there are fun days and boring days, good times and bad times, just like for everyone.
And the same applies in the digital nomad world. To be honest, a lot of the time, yes you are having a hell of a lot more fun than everyone back home in their office. During my year and a half as a nomad, I visited loads more countries and cities than I could possibly have done in a year of holidays from work. I spent a lot more time on beaches, in forests, up mountains and exploring. So, there is really no point in me telling you that it’s not a lot of fun. However, it’s simply not always the case. The point of being a digital nomad not just a kid on a gap year is that you have to WORK to keep living the lifestyle. And no matter how flash and exciting your job might sound (blogger, designer, Instagram model, writer, app developer…), all these jobs take work. A lot of work. The truly successful travel bloggers put almost full-time hours into everything that comes with blogging, from photography to SEO to writing to design… It is not just a case of ‘bash out a few words and a nice picture and readers will come and give you money’. Unfortunately. So the truth is that whatever your ‘digital’ side of the equation is, it will require time, dedication, hard work and of course that magic word: wifi.
As a freelance translator, and living in cheaper countries, I was certainly able to work a lot less than the usual 40 hour week, and to manage my hours as I pleased to fit in travel and sightseeing.
However, my hours were erratic, sometimes more and sometimes less. Jobs are not always steady and therefore sometimes you have to spend time searching for work or clients, chasing up invoices (sometimes fruitlessly) and the money also goes up and down. Most freelancers have to hustle fairly constantly to keep a consistent income stream going. After a few months I’d say I’d reached the point where things were going pretty well and I didn’t have to chase jobs anymore (they came to me), but I wasn’t exactly making huge money.
Quite simply, living as a digital nomad is just not all fun and games. There are fun and games involved, but you still have to be a professional just like everyone else, which means putting in the hours, delivering the work and generally being reliable with clients no matter where you are. Your client doesn’t care that you’re in Bogota and your wifi is no good. If you said you’d deliver a project at 10am, you’d better deliver it. Of course this can be stressful, so it’s important to be aware that even if you’re on the other side of the world, the same constraints of being a reliable worker still apply. It’s not really any excuse to slack off and chill out for a few years (unless you’ve got the savings already, in which case you’re not really a digital nomad anyway).
And what about the side that Levels mentioned in the article above? Loneliness, disconnection and so on. Personally, as a bit of a loner, this was not a big deal for me. I kept in touch sporadically with friends from home via Facebook or Skype, and sometimes managed to meet them here and there on my travels. I also made the odd new friend in various places. I don’t think all nomads are having the raging social life they like to portray in their blogs (or maybe they are, who knows). Whilst if you backpack around South East Asia you might meet other travellers in party hostels, if you just live in a regular flat, you won’t meet people at all unless you make an effort. I always found that Couchsurfing and even Tinder were good ways to meet people here and there.
However, the feeling of disconnection can be true. If you move a lot, you end up as a kind of ‘in-between’ person. You don’t want to miss out on everything, but you also don’t want to get too involved or too tied down. You can’t build up a whole life in a place you’ll only be in for 3 months or so. I found that in some places I made a lot of friends only to feel like it was a waste of time when I eventually left shortly after. In other places I made less effort, although in those cases I ended up feeling more bored while I was there.You also miss out on a lot of the perks of being a resident or citizen. Often you have no access to the country’s social security systems. Healthcare, benefits, labour laws, various services, long-term rentals and various other systems are simply out of your reach. Particularly in Sweden, I was not able to get a ‘Personnummer’, the equivalent of a NIN which would have allowed me to get a job/healthcare/storecards/property etc, which made me feel very peripheral and temporary. Their entire system is built around high taxes and great social security and services, but as a non-resident you are cut out from all of it. I’m not saying I wanted to benefit from their great maternity leave or anything, but when you can’t even get a points-card at ICA, you know that you’re not really a part of Swedish life. Nomadic Matt wrote an interesting post about his own reasons for eventually not committing to a life in Sweden, mainly the impossibility of getting medium-term housing there if you’re not a Swede, which does resonate with me as non-residents don’t really get a good deal in Sweden.
So, I’m not sure if I’d go as far as to say there is a dark side of the nomad life, but it certainly does have its flip-side. There are boring times even if it looks like you’re always having fun. You still have to put the same effort into building and maintaining a career. Money can be much more unreliable than in a salaried job. And of course, it can be lonely at times.
Are you a digital nomad? Let me know below what you think about the downsides of the lifestyle? If not – let me know if you think you’d like to try this lifestyle!
Ciao for now