On Being a Digital Nomad: The Internet: help or hindrance?

This may sound profoundly self-evident, but you really need the internet in order to be a Digital Nomad.

In the olden days – before 1995 – you could still work remotely, but it was a hassle. You had to send discs with data by physical mail or courier. Faxing was useful then, too. You would print out a document and have it faxed to your client or boss. Of course, you could even use physical mail to sent the printed document. This assumed, of course, that you had access to a printer, wherever you were in the world.

Today, we need the Internet. The old systems are simply too slow, such as physical mail, or don’t exist anymore, such as with faxes, which are almost all gone. The digital world works very fast, requiring us to be online for at least an hour a day to respond to emails, post updates, and manage our personal and professional business logistics. If we start to skip days we get “out of the loop”, and will start to fade from the minds of key people in our circles who are geographically bound – professional contacts, colleagues, and social contacts. Even family and close friends will start to forget us as we are not part of their immediate geographic and cultural life experience.

This leads us to a paradox: We need the internet wherever we go to stay connected with our professional and personal worlds, but at the same time, that very same internet connection binds us to places where it is available and commits us to spending time every day linked in.

And the paradox is deeper: By having our minds engaged for some time every day on the internet, we are dividing our focus between the physical life we find ourselves in and the virtual life we are engaged in on the internet. This split focus can mean that we are not really experiencing our geographic locale fully and therefore not allowing ourselves to learn and grow from the experience as much as if we were entirely immersed there.

This is not a problem if you have no need or intention to learn much about where you are geographically and culturally. So, if you are staying in a nice little condo in Hawaii, for example, who cares if you are dividing your attention between the internet and your life in Hawaii? You can do your work online and then go for a walk on the beach in the afternoon. Only good things happen in this case: You are a Digital Nomad and at the same time you are delighting in all the warmth and beauty that Hawaii has to offer.

An Internet Cafe - everything you need
Everything a Digital Nomad needs to thrive: Internet, ideas, coffee, and Italian pastries. Right here in Guatemala. Judgement free for your enjoyment.

But what if you are in Guatemala – as I am while writing this – in a small town that speaks half Spanish and half Maya? And you are surrounded by a thousand years of poverty and strife, while staying in a small hotel in the midst of embedded historical chaos. And where your $15 per night room is the same $15 that a family of 6 here can live on for 2 days; in fact, they must to live on this amount for 2 days. Should you be dividing your attention between the internet and the amazing learning that could take place if you were solely focused here?

Ultimately, the decision on where you go as a Digital Nomad, what you choose to experience there, and how you spend your time in a day, is yours to make. You can judge yourself, but you know that would be silly. This self-judgement can slip into your mind without constant vigilance and reminding yourself of why you are digital nomading in the first place, however. Likely you will connect with other tourists and expatriates who are on various personal journeys and it can be easy to unconsciously compare their path with what yours looks and might sound like. I have had to practice this mental vigilance on this trip: I am in Guatemala for a month to try out being a Digital Nomad, enjoy the warmth, practice Spanish, and get to know a bit about this wonderful country. That’s all. I am not here to feel guilty about anything. Or to feel I have to run around visiting every Mayan pyramid. Or to worry about how I spend my time – online or offline.

I know why I am here and I am living this experience exactly as I intended. Perfect.

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.

Choices, choices – time and the Digital Nomad

When you are living in a place where you go to work every day at a physical institution, you naturally develop rhythms and patterns of time that allow work to take place in predictable and trustworthy patterns. For example, you have meetings you can schedule that will allow you to move an agenda forward.  And you have people around you working specific hours of the day offering their job structured services.  Finally, you can craft a to-do list that fits the hours you have available in your office, giving some assurance you will get them done before you close your office door and head home for a (scheduled) dinner.

But what happens when you are either traveling or living in a place where you don’t have those natural work rhythms and patterns to structures, because you are a Digital Nomad?

This is where it gets interesting.  You have to take full conscious responsibility for your work habits, patterns, and responsibilities.

Right. Better get on that.

Digital Nomad – Wrinkle #2:  Doing interesting things while traveling and living geographically free means that you are always being tempted to do things other than work.  Climb a volcano or assess a grad paper?  Hang out chatting with interesting people or reply to work emails?  Live now with the results of your work or work now to generate the results that will allow you to live more freely later?

As I am just learning how to find the right balance, I don’t have a depth of advice to offer. What I do know is to really understand your work and life priorities at any one point in time and ensure that the highest priority rules the moment.  Planning doesn’t really work well. “Flow” does…

Digital Nomad – Delight #2:  Contrast.  Wow, traveling and living the Digital Nomad lifestyle gives you amazing contrast to work with. Want to judge a person you work online with harshly? Taking a look around where you are right now and seeing the realities of life that most people live puts you quickly into a place of humility and consideration of the reality of the person you are working online with.

Feeling that you deserve more money for the work you are doing? One glance at the lack of opportunity, little pay, and harsh  working conditions of most people in the world will straighten out your thinking real quick.

Thinking that something you want to create online has already been done and there is too much competition?  Most of the world is just ramping up their use of the internet.  The question is not one of competing in first-world online contexts, but of finding international markets that are yet to develop or are yet under-served. There are thousands of these available.  Any field, any language, any scale.

Finally, think you deserve to take the morning off to play? Take one glance right now at the person near you who is working 10 hours a day at a repetitive, boring job – for a pittance.

Right.  So, what’s my priority this morning and what do I want to create with it?

Being a Digital Nomad

This is our first full day in Guatemala and so far, so good. Alex and I decided to come here for a kind of learning retreat – a chance for us to write, improve our Spanish, explore a different culture,  and particularly for me, learn to be a Digital Nomad.

To my surprise, most people I have mentioned ‘Digital Nomad’ to haven’t heard of it before.  So, here’s my definition:

Digital Nomad – n. A person free from location-based work and life responsibilities who travels the world, and/or lives where they like in the world, working online wherever they are.

Digital Nomad – Wrinkle #1:  When I used Google to do a search just now, it cleverly noticed I am in Guatemala and switched to Spanish with search results keyed to local resources.

Gracias, Google, pero…  I am not yet fluent enough in Spanish to want to do all my online searches in this language.

But wait! Wouldn’t working in Spanish with Google help me improve my Spanish? Yes it would. But I am not quite there yet skill-wise, and my work online is only in English. So I will switch it back to English…for now.

Digital Nomad – Delight #1:  Guatemala has widespread internet availability, and it seems to be free with many types of accommodation and in many cafes and restaurants! Obviously, a good internet connection wherever you are would be required for working online.  One warm, inexpensive, friendly, and interesting country – Guatemala – is enabling my experiment in lifestyle design by having a core piece of infrastructure I need – access to the internet.

To end this first post on`digital nomadacy`, I should put a shout-out to Tim Ferriss. He put a fire under me, and so many other people like me who want to be free of geographic and mental constraints, to make lifestyle changes happen in our lives.  Tim’s now famous book, “The 4-hour Work Week”, really challenged me to think about how I want to live my life. One of the goals of this trip – learning to be a Digital Nomad here in Guatemala – is a direct result of the fire that Tim set. Thank you, Tim.