Digital nomads enjoy sharing photos of themselves working from paradisiacal locations. There they sit, laptop in lap, toes in the sand, looking out at the crashing waves…
What they don’t share with you is that the laptop is burning their legs, the glare from the sun is so strong they can’t see the screen, and sand and salt particles are not a computer’s friend.
I’ve taught English, worked as a freelance writer, and earned an income as a video editor from China to Bali and from Peru to (currently) Mexico. I was a digital nomad before being a digital nomad was a thing.
What’s the truth about this lifestyle?
First, the challenges…
#1: Finding A Place To Live
The biggest challenge for the digital nomad is the constant search for a place to live and work from. Thanks to websites like Airbnb and Facebook, it’s easier today than ever to find an apartment furnished and ready for a short-term renter (that is, a digital nomad) to move into.
However, it’s not always easy to find an apartment with a comfortable workspace and internet that is fast enough to support online classes and uploading videos. I spend so much time searching for appropriate accommodation that you could call it my second job.
#2: Lack Of Community
When you’re bouncing around from city to city, a month here and a month there, it’s difficult to establish any sense of community. Sure, you can join Facebook groups and go to coworking spaces, but it’s hard to get beyond small talk and pleasantries when you’re busy working and you know you’ll be leaving in a few weeks anyway.
Ask any digital nomad to name the negatives of the lifestyle, and I’m sure that most of them will include loneliness on the list. This is especially true around the holidays. When my wife and I lived in Beijing, we had a big group of friends to enjoy holiday get-togethers with. That was not the case during our recent nomad stint in Lima. Both of us were feeling pretty down about being on our own the whole holiday season.
#3: Too Much Time Working, Not Enough Time Exploring
One of the biggest draws of being a digital nomad is the opportunity it creates for you to travel when you want, where you want. However, there’s a big difference between being a tourist and being a digital nomad.
When you’ve got classes to teach, articles to write, videos to edit, and a website to maintain, you find that there really isn’t a whole lot of time left to explore the place you’re visiting. We spent a month in Lima, and I remember leaving feeling like I’d barely seen the city.
#4: Managing Currency, Taxes, And Visas
The administration can get complicated. Right now, for example, I’m an American living in Mexico and being paid in dollars by a Chinese company.
As a digital nomad, you’ve got to deal with things like currency conversions and bank fees. You, depending on the country and how long you want to be able to stay there, you also have to worry about your tax and visa status. Ignore these things, as some digital nomads do, and you can find yourself in hot water with the local authorities.
OK… enough about the challenges.
What are the upsides of the digital nomad life?
#1: The Freedom
For me, the best part about being a digital nomad is the freedom it allows you. It’s so liberating to be able to take an entire week off if I want to without having to worry about so much as sending an email.
It’s also amazing that I can decide to up and move to another country in a heartbeat at any time. It’s a lot easier to make an international move when you live out of a backpack and have no furniture, no car, and nothing else to tie you down. I’ve been to 15 countries since I started living the digital nomad lifestyle and hope to visit several more next year.
#2: Income Possibilities Are Many And Diverse
I began my digital nomad life writing blogs for a language company. I still write for them, and now I’m also writing for several other websites in addition to creating content and finding ways to monetize my own website.
I’m also teaching English online, which is a well-paying and flexible job that travels well. Digital nomad friends are graphic designers, podcasters, code writers, yoga teachers, and on and on.
When you have the freedom and flexibility to move around and try new things, all sorts of doors open for you.
#3: Being In A Place More Like A Resident Than A Tourist
One amazing thing about the digital nomad life is being able to stay in places longer than you would as a traveler. It’s great spending a few days in Bali; it’s even better spending a few months there. Staying longer in a place allows you to dig into the local culture more and to find off-the-beaten-path spots that the guidebooks don’t know about.
I’ve met many retirees here in Puerto Vallarta who tell me, “I worked for 40 years to be able to live here. How do you guys do it at your age?!”
You don’t have to wait until retirement to live in paradise these days!
#4: The DN Community
While it can get lonely as a digital nomad, it’s reassuring knowing that the DN community is growing bigger and bigger by the day. Through Facebook groups, special forums, and conferences, it’s possible to connect with digital nomads all over the world. I’ve met several fellow nomads in the past few years. My network of friends covers all corners of the globe, meaning I have people to meet up with when I travel most anywhere in the world… people who I have something in common with.
When weighing the pros and cons of digital nomad life, I’d say it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience. For one, I can’t imagine going back to having set hours and a boss I have to ask for time off. The thought of being limited to two weeks a year of travel absolutely terrifies me. I work to live, not the other way around, and the digital nomad lifestyle is well-suited for that.
It isn’t always easy, but for me the benefits of being a digital nomad far outweigh the downsides.