Millo's Musings

Should You Become a "Digital Nomad"? Some Honest Reflections

28 January 2020

View from the office, Saigon

I’ve never identified very heavily with the term “digital nomad”, but it’s the easiest way to describe how I lived from early 2013 to late 2017, travelling the world while making a living online. Over four and a half years, I lived in five countries and visited another fifteen, supporting myself by writing computer code. Anywhere with Wi-Fi was my office, and most of the time - especially in Southeast Asia, where I spent nearly two years - my social circle consisted mainly of people with similar work arrangements.

Such a lifestyle gets an ungodly amount of hype in certain corners of the Internet, and I drank the Kool-Aid. Becoming a digital nomad, even if I didn’t call it that, had been my obsession for a long time. When I finally left the U.K., it felt like a dream was coming true.

And now here I am, back in Blighty for two years and counting. How time flies. I won’t rule it out, but I’m unlikely to become a digital nomad again soon.

Was it everything I expected? I’m not sure what I did expect. It’s a weird lifestyle, and having been immersed in it for so long it’s hard to remember how I felt at the start. But if I could talk to my 22 year-old self as he was boarding that plane, here’s what I think he hadn’t figured out yet:

Digital Nomadism is Easy

The Mui Ne sand dunes, Vietnam

What does it take to become a digital nomad? The truth is: not much.

No business? No problem. Move to a hub like Saigon or Chiang Mai and you’ll probably be fine. Cost of living is so low in these places that with a little bit of savings you’ll have a long time to figure things out. If you run out of money, teach English.

But that’s the thing. Becoming a digital nomad isn’t easy - it’s laughably easy. You don’t need a trust fund or a “muse” or a six-figure business or even a credit card. All you need is a laptop, an obsessive personality, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. (I can attest that youthful arrogance helps too.) While many digital nomads are successful entrepreneurs with real businesses making serious money, others are not. Sometimes in Chiang Mai it’s hard to tell the difference.

Perhaps the real appeal of digital nomadism is that it’s not falsifiable. The more you forsake a “traditional” life path or career, the harder it becomes for anyone to prove you wrong. The criteria for success are so vague that it’s impossible to know if you’ve failed.

And let’s put things into perspective. Expats in Southeast Asia like to talk about how “easy” and low-pressure everything is out there. (I’ve been guilty of it.) Broke your glasses? Want to rent a motorbike? Need medical treatment? You’ll be amazed how little time, effort and money it takes to solve these problems compared to what you’re used to back home. It’s a comfortable life; in Vietnam I lived in a big city-centre house and ate out for every meal. But maybe “easy” is the wrong word.

The average Vietnamese person in Saigon makes something like $200 US a month. For a twenty-something fresh out of university, it’s probably more like $80, and that’s before tax. By way of comparison, I knew English teachers in Southeast Asia who made over thirty times that, and nomads who made far more. If you were making making thirty times the average salary in London, you might think that life in that city is “easy” too.

These countries aren’t easy, they’re just poor. It’s nice as a rich Westerner to be able to take advantage of favourable exchange rates and live a lifestyle far beyond what’s possible back home. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ve earned it.

Digital Nomadism Is Selfish

Barcelona. Growing my hair long was a terrible idea

If there’s one book every digital nomad has read, it’s Tim Ferriss’s uber-bestseller The Four Hour Work Week. “WARNING”, says the back cover, “DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB.”

Among much else, Ferriss encourages the reader to “dreamline”: write down all your wildest goals and fantasies, then work backwards to figure out how you can make them happen. The point is that that thing you’ve been fantasising about - say, that round-the-world backpacking trip or fancy new car - is often far more achievable than you may have realised.

Dreamlining is a valuable exercise, but there’s something it overlooks: anyone other than yourself. Follow your dreams, chase your passions, do what you want, live life on your own terms, you can have it all, screw what other people think, they don’t know what’s best for you. That’s digital nomadism in a nutshell. It’s all about putting yourself first and minimising your personal sacrifice.

I’m not judging; God knows my own travels were self-indulgent, and I’ve hardly lived a life of sacrifice. It’s not like the typical digital nomad is out there spamming and scammimg people; the vast majority are doing decent, honest work just like the rest of the population. My point is merely that it’s a self-centred pursuit. Fun, but in the long run is it really that fulfilling?

Digital Nomadism is a Monoculture

I’ve never been to Silicon Valley, but I hear that the place can be monotonous. Everyone works in tech, so every conversation is about tech and software and start-ups and “disruption” and venture capital; it gets old.

Welcome to the digital nomad world. No-one works for Google, but the conversations can still be repetitive. SEO, PPC, FBA. Drop-shipping, cross-selling, split-testing. Landing pages, sales funnels, lead generation. It’s a rare dinner table where you can avoid talk of online business, and in the rare moments when no-one is talking about work, there’s still not much diversity of thought. Digital nomads generally consume the same books and blogs and shows and podcasts, and have similar goals, hobbies, interests, ideas, and political views. (Not to mention they’re overwhelmingly male; make of that what you will.)

This isn’t a complaint. I am similar to the average digital nomad in all the ways just described, and when I moved to Saigon it was wonderful to meet so many people like me. It’s just easy to forget when you’re deep in the bubble that there’s a wider world out there. These days I find there’s very little to be gained by attending yet another digital nomad meetup. It’s not that I won’t like anyone there, but diminishing returns kicked in a very long time ago.

Digital Nomadism is Not the Future

Turns out that this city is pretty cool too.

For as long as there have been both nations and businesses, there has been international business. But what we’re seeng now is something truly new. A confluence of technological factors - WiFi, Skype, smartphones, affordable flights - have created a class of worker that couldn’t have existed just twenty years ago.

Given the novelty of the whole thing, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and think the trend will continue forever. In the future, will we all be nomads?

No. Let’s get real. Most work can’t be done remotely and that’s not going to change any time soon.

For all the fuss, pretty much every digital nomad does one of the same tiny number of jobs. There are zillions of programmers, a few graphic designers or freelance writers, lots of “internet marketers” (always a suspicious job title), and everyone else runs some kind of e-commerce or SaaS or dropshipping business… or they’re a “consultant”, whatever that means. These are legitimate ways to make money, but they’re a tiny fraction of the world of work, and let’s be honest: they’re not important. When civilisation collapses we’re going to miss the firefighters, doctors, social workers, and police officers - none of whom can do their jobs from Thailand - far more than anyone will miss my Javascript.

No-one in the digital nomad world is doing work that matters. That’s fine; almost no-one anywhere is doing work that matters, and I wouldn’t include my own work in that category. But the echo chamber can warp your perspective. Go to enough conferences and you’ll start thinking that we could make a serious dent in the world’s most pressing problems if only more people would move to Bali to become Amazon dropshippers or freelance PPC consultants.

The ultimate irony of this lifestyle is that, in your quest to maximise your freedom, you end up placing a lot of limits on yourself. It’s hard to commit to a place, job, hobby, or relationship when you’re trying to keep your options open. To have it all, you must give things up. Breadth is the enemy of depth, and it’s hard to grow when you don’t put down roots. That’s why most digital nomads eventually get tired of it.

Digital Nomadism is Worth It

My active volcano is better than yours

It’s a brave new world we live in. All kinds of things are possible that our parents’ generation could never have dreamed of. Given how much the world has changed in the last ten years alone, who knows what another decade will bring? Maybe this will all be a flash in the pan and in the near future such a jetsetting lifestyle won’t be nearly as attainable.

All I know is I’m glad I took the opportunities that were available to me. The last thing I would want is to discourage anyone from chasing the digital nomad dream if they think it’s for them. It’s not without its drawbacks, and I wouldn’t want to live that way forever. But it was definitely, definitely worth it.

So let’s end on a positive note. I loved my time as a digital nomad. It was four years of fun, growth, excitement, and adventure. I made amazing friends, learned so much, changed in all kinds of ways for the better, and if I could go back I would do it all again. My misgivings are minor, and my regrets are few.

Buy that one-way ticket if it’s been tempting you. The world is far less deadly, dangerous, difficult and daunting than you think; the hardest part is finding the courage to make the leap.

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