Being a Digital Nomad: Can you actually do the ‘Nomad’ part?

Digital Nomading sounds fabulous. Check out this quote from book The $100 Startup, by Chris Guillebeau:

“Packing a carry-on bag with running shoes and two changes of clothes, I head into the world via a short connection from Portland to Vancouver International Airport. Later that evening, the twelve-hour Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong gives me two hours to watch a movie, six hours to sleep and four hours to write emails.

Arriving in Asia, I clear immigration (no bags to claim), check my wallet to see if I still have local currency from the last trip here, and settle into a concourse chair before jumping the train into the city. I flip open the laptop, connect to “HHG-Free-WiFi”, and log onto the world. Woosh…out go all the emails I wrote on the plane and in come 150 more that arrived during the night.

…After I adjust to the time difference over the next couple of days, I settle into a routine of morning work and afternoon exploration. At least one week a month, I live this dream world of travel, work and frequent coffee breaks. The business is structured around my life, not the other way around.” (page 57-58)

Chris is not the only one to expound the possibilities of an amazing life as a Digital Nomad.  Tim Ferriss, of the 4-Hour Work Week fame, does as well, suggesting that taking a month or more of time abroad is not only doable, but desirable.

Can you actually do the ‘Nomad’ part?

Sounds great doesn’t it? Just surf the systems of the world, experiencing countries, peoples, lifestyles, and places while doing your work digitally.

San Pedro at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
Lake Atitlan – yup, it is really beautiful…and warm!

So here we are in Guatemala, finding that yes, some of this is absolutely true. While back home on Vancouver Island it frosted the other night and is typically rainy, dark, and cold this time of year, Alex and I are sitting under palm trees in San Pedro,  Guatemala in beautiful sunshine, connecting to our hotel’s wifi connection and working digitally.  Oh, and our nice little hotel costs $12.80 a night, breakfast around $9 for the two of us (we splurged at a nice place), and this afternoon, when our work is done, we will go kayaking on gorgeous Lake Atitlan, where our hotel is on the shore of. Kayak rentals: $1.25 per hour.

Ready to fly down and join us yet?

A must:  Understanding the context and setting the stage

Wait a minute! You know deep down that nothing is ever perfect. The grass cannot be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Life just doesn’t work that way.

So what is wrong with the pictures Chris Guillebeau and I painted?

First, the context:

Did you notice that Chris does not mention family? I don’t know his personal situation, but would you be able to jet around the world one week a month if you have a teething 6 month old at home? Or a spouse/partner who you have created a geographically grounded life with?  Or when your 3rd child is having their first dance performance next week. “Sorry my dear! I’m off to Guatemala. Mommy will video it so I can see it when I get back from playing abroad!”

Do you see the reality of most people’s lives in contrast to a Digital Nomad’s?

Being a Digital Nomad means you are free of geographic, fused relationship, and mental constraints.

Geographic:  You must be free of a job that specifies you be in one place. And a residence that ties you down with maintenance, security, and/or high costs. And no dogs or cats who need your attention. And few or no community or civic commitments.  You must be separate enough from your “home base” to be free to travel and “digital nomad”.  How many people are ready to live like this? Can you feel the emptiness of living in a geographic community but not being a significant part of it based on time you spend there and the attention you give it?

Fused relationship:  For those who don’t know what this means, a “fused relationship” is one where you do your life together – eating, playing, sleeping, thinking, believing – a set of agreements to be together and support each other every day. “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine”.  A beautiful feeling it is, knowing someone is so close to you and loves you intimately.

Obviously and sadly for many, this does not bode well for you being a Digital Nomad.  And no, just because you want to be a Digital Nomad does not mean your partner does not. They may enthusiastically join you one one trip, or two, or three, but sooner or later you will find your paths separating for days and weeks at a time. If your relationship can stand this change to a more differentiated relationship, you are on your way to being a Digital Nomad.

So, what kind of a relationship do you have with those most close to you – A partner, siblings, parents, etc.? Is the foundation of your relationships in life differentiated, or fused? If fused, are you willing to change the nature of your relationships to allow for the freedom you want in order to be a Digital Nomad?

Mental constraints:  The picture of our time in Guatemala that I painted earlier is absolutely true, but what I left out are the following mental challenges:

– My son and I have to speak Spanish most places just to get by in all our day-to-day activities. Are you ready to learn other languages, or at least enough of them to get by in a new place?

– I picked up a stomach flu a few days ago. 5 years ago, I would have been in a panic and on the plane back to North America to get good medical care in a “safe” country.  This time?  Lots of liquids and sleep.  A couple of days later I was functional.  No panic, no running around looking for medicine, no worry. How sensitive are you to life’s inevitable twists and turns?  Do you live a life of security and safety, or do you trust that everything will work out with time, patience, rest, and care in what you do?  I suggest that many people have an idealized sense of their own flexibility and adaptability.  I certainly did!  Do you?

– It is noisy, complicated, and different here in Guatemala. I am learning to surf the differences and remember who I am and that I am at all times OK. 6 years ago, this would not have been so easy.  It wasn’t, actually, and we headed home from Mexico early because of pre-election violence there, a bad sense of dislocation from home, and simply being fed up with constant daily hassles.

What is your mental state? Are you ready to flow easily through the world, adjusting, adapting, resting when you need to, and moving on when it is clear the time do so has come? Do you feel safe wherever you are, or do you rely on systems, processes, structures and the familiar to keep you feeling grounded?

In summary, then, know your personal context really well before you decide that being a Digital Nomad is either desirable for you or a goal you want to achieve.  What does your life look like right now and if not close to that which would allow you to be a Digital Nomad, are you willing to change it? Are those around you going to help you make these changes, or resist them?

Setting the stage

OK, so you are either in a very good or ideal personal context for being a Digital Nomad.  What now?  How do you make it happen?  A few key steps:

1. Release yourself from geographic constraints.  Have a low cost, safe-when-unoccupied, low-maintenance residence. No dog, no cat, no plants (unless you have roommates), and not a worry on your mind in any way when you are away.  Do not take on new ties that will commit you a community and gently release yourself from projects, teams, and groups who rely on you for your attendance on a regular basis.  Change all your business to electronic – no more physical utility bills sent to your home, no more physical office.  Buy a laptop if you have been using a desktop computer. No, not just an iPad if you have real work to do abroad, a laptop.

2.  Get your relationships ready for your more freely flowing lifestyle. Depending on your life situation, a therapist or life coach may be of value. Seriously. Changing the nature of your relationships can be hard and will be the second hardest thing you do in this process, if not in life in general. For others who are already pretty lightly connected in terms of relationships, no problem: Off you go.

3. Get your head straight.  Sorry, no easy way to do this but by gutting a lot of your habits, beliefs, and values. And by facing your fears, challenging yourself to think differently, learning to live in trust, and being brave enough to be truthful to yourself and the world. This will likely be the most difficult task you face in this process and in your  life in general. And the most worthwhile, I should note.

Do I make this sound easy?  I have been at it in earnest for 6 years now. A challenging and heart-wrenching task, but hey, I am now writing this under a palm tree in Guatemala, pretty darn happy with life in general.

Mine was,  and is still not, an easy journey to freedom. And I am not fully there yet, but far enough to know I have succeeded.

If you are really drawn to be free to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle know that if I can do it, so can you.

Good luck!

This post dedicated to my amazing partner Sheila, with whose love, support, and living our fabulous differentiated relationship together I can try out the Digital Nomad lifestyle.

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