The concept of becoming a digital nomad––traveling the world and working remotely from anywhere your heart desires without being tethered to a desk, or even an office––sounds pretty tempting. Most of us have probably fantasized more than once about responding to emails while sipping coconut water at a beachside cafe. For digital nomads, this existence isn't a fantasy; it's reality. But is it really all it's cracked up to be? Are these global butterflies living the dream, or is there a catch to this idealized life?
How to know if your motivations are pure
You need to have a serious case of wanderlust. Vacationing and living in another country are two entirely different situations. Vacations are meant to be stress-free breaks from real life during which you leave your daily struggles behind and indulge yourself. Living in another country can be an incredible experience, but it's not a constant vacation.
If you're dead set on unshackling yourself from your 9-5 job (or at least committed to doing it remotely, possibly on the beach), keep in mind that many of the anxieties weighing you down in your current life will travel with you. If your main motivation for becoming such a nomad is to travel to as many exotic places as you possibly can, then being one may suit you just fine. But if you're simply dreaming of a life where you can tap out some emails for a half hour and spend the rest of the day parasailing, then you'd be better off buying a lottery ticket than a plane ticket.
You'll never make your own coffee again.Photo by Nathan Dumlao
What does it take to be a successful digital nomad?
You need street smarts, a cool head, and a gregarious personality. If your passport or bag gets stolen or you get injured while on vacation, it can be complicated and frustrating to get back to your regular life. But at least in this situation you have a stable "real life" to get back to. If you're living in a foreign country with no real home base to head back to, it can be significantly scarier.
You have to be able to stay calm in any situation because the help you could rely on back home may not be available. Depending on where you're living, medical care can be less impressive than what you're used to, and telling a medical professional what's wrong when you don't speak the language can be, er, challenging. Time to brush up on your pantomime.
If you're the shy and retiring type, making friends may also be intimidating. Unless you're working a local gig (which generally pay less than what you'd need to live comfortably), you most likely won't have the opportunity to meet people in ways you normally would. Committing to the digital nomad life means meeting people through other means, like local Meetups or community activities. One nice thing about being a foreigner: you immediately feel a kinship with other non-indigenous folks. It doesn't matter if you're a Canadian living in South America, or a Vietnamese holed up in Iceland; non-locals immediately have something in common to bond over.
Wrapping another day at the office.Photo by Felix Russell-Saw
What's life really like for a digital nomad?
For one thing, it's not all play and no work. Oftentimes digital nomads find themselves working longer hours than they would back home, depending on the lifestyle they want and where they live. If you're making a living as a freelancer, be prepared for times of feast and famine. Sometimes you'll be so busy you won't have time to breathe. Other times you'll be in between projects, trying to drum up business.
But the flip side to this uncertainty is that you have unlimited vacation time. Play your cards right, save copiously, and you can spend a lot more time traveling than you ever would with a traditional 9-5 (at least working in the US).
If you're trying to do your 9-5 from afar, you may be in for some late nights/early mornings, depending on the time difference. You may also find it difficult to motivate yourself to work when there's so much cool stuff to explore just outside your door. It's a bit easier to pound out that financial report when you know that you'll only encounter a Subway and Starbucks outside, instead of a street food hawker selling som tam off the back of her bike.
Financial stability abroad
Depending on what type of work you secure and your cost of living, you could be saving a lot of money or be living hand-to-mouth. It depends what your goals are. If you're dying to do as little work as possible while traveling the world, it will behoove you to choose places with exceptionally low cost of living. Save your pennies for flights (or hack the frequent flier programs) and steel your stomach for street food. If your dream is simply to live in a tropical locale and still save a decent sum, look for side gigs to supplement your income. Being an Uber driver, package deliverer, or performing any number of small tasks from sites like Fiverr can help you earn cash on the side.
That log is her desk. Photo by Nathan Dumlao
The highs are higher...but the lows are lower
You'll have some of the best times of your life...but sometimes all you want to do is go grocery shopping at Target and drive home on autopilot. Living a nomadic life can be exhausting because you're always blazing your own trail. Depending on how nomadic you want to be, you may be living out of a backpack and traveling to 2-3 cities per week. Heck, in Southeast Asia you could visit 2-3 countries a week! In every place you touch down you'll have to sniff out a few of the same things (safe/cheap lodging, food, a place to work), which can get tiresome over time.
However, traveling the world means you'll never have the same experience twice. Yes, you'll be consistently looking for a place to crash, but at least you won't be staring at the same ceiling, night after night. Your view outside the window will never be static. You'll be constantly exposed to new situations, experiences, and people. For some people this is a dream come true. For others, it can be stressful.
Your life fits in a bag
Perhaps one of the most liberating aspects of a nomadic life is letting go of possessions. It's amazing how much money you save when you can only buy things that will fit in your pack. And what's even better: you'll realize how you don't really need that much stuff to be happy.
To sum up: this lifestyle isn't for everyone. And it may not be right forever, even for those who love to travel. But you only get one life. If you feel like your spirit is being crushed by the grind and you're happiest when you're not at home, becoming a digital nomad could be one of the best decisions you'll ever make.