4 Important Lessons I've Learned Living As A Digital Nomad For 9 Months

In October 2018 I packed my bags and moved 8,000 miles from my former home in the U.S. to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I’ve been living since. The decision to pack up and head out came relatively easy for me, and was inspired by a handful of things, but mostly, I moved because it was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Growing up I didn’t have the chance to visit any countries outside of the U.S., and as I got older, my interest for exploring places and cultures that seemed vastly different from my own, grew and grew. 

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to a few countries while I was in college including Mexico and Ireland, and I even studied abroad in India for 3 weeks at one point, but I wanted more. I craved new places and new people, and I wanted to be thrown outside of my comfort zone. Choosing the digital nomad life wasn’t something that I contemplated for very long. For me, it felt inevitable.

According to Urban Dictionary, a digital nomad is defined as “one who derives income remotely and online, rather than from commuting to an office. This enables the digital nomad to not need a permanent home base, and they can travel anywhere at any time. Often find them couchsurfing, living in hostels, with friends, or in countries where rent is relatively cheap.” This, in a nutshell, is the life I have been living for the past 9 months.

With the rise of the internet and of social media platforms, remote work has become a phenomenon that is blossoming all over the globe. No longer is this seemingly “lush” life of sipping coconuts by the beach on a Tuesday or island hopping in the most beautiful places on Earth something that is reserved for the wealthy, social media influencers, and jobs that are centered around traveling. With an increasing amount of ways to make money with merely a laptop and an internet connection, the term “digital nomad” has found its way into popular lexicon, and it looks like it’s here to stay. 

Having lived in this way for almost an entire year, I have learned a lot. Maybe most importantly, I’ve learned that every beneficial aspect of this way of living, also comes with a counter balance; a negative aspect, that many people living in a more traditional, 9-5 working pattern, may not have considered. Like many things in life, the grass tends to appear greener when you’re looking in from the outside without any of your own experience to reference, and I’ve found this to be especially true with digital nomading.

As I’ve gained more time and experience as a nomad under my belt, I’ve been mulling over a lot of things, trying to figure out how exactly to articulate what I want to say about my time living abroad. With this article, I hope to paint a more realistic picture of my life as a digital nomad outside of the four sides of a cell phone screen because for many, social media is where you discover the perception of what it looks like to live and work abroad. I want to pull back the curtain a bit, and explain the most important things I’ve learned so far in my time as a digital nomad.

 

Distractions are endless

When you work from your laptop, you can stay in bed and work in your pajamas. You can take a lunch break whenever you want or for however long you want. You can even take as many vacation days and sick days as you want to. How you spend your days and your time is completely up to you, but what no one tells you, is how difficult it can be to stay motivated, because most (if not all) of your drive to keep going has to come from yourself.

What I’ve learned as a digital nomad, time and time again, is how precious my attention is. Having been born in the early 90s, I remember what life was like before smartphones (and even before cell phones!), and before the phrase “Google it”ever existed. I remember days as a kid where I felt bored, and my options for entertainment were limited to spending time with people, reading a book, making art/music, or going outside. Now, social media, Netflix, YouTube, and Google, make boredom a thing of the past.

Mark Manson describes the way in which our attention is bought and sold in his well-researched article here, and John Green expresses his concern about a collective decrease in focus here, but essentially these two come to the same conclusion that I agree with: our attention and ability to focus is vastly important in living a fulfilling and meaningful life, and as a whole, attention spans are becoming increasingly fragmented with the rise of the internet and social media.

All this is to say that working for yourself is not for the faint of heart or the easily-distracted. Strong self-motivation is a difficult yet crucial aspect for living and working as a digital nomad.

Balance is vital

I am friends with many digital nomads, I’ve met a lot at Chiang Mai’s Annual Digital Nomad Summit, and I have read a handful of blogs and personal stories from people living the digital nomad life, and there is a wide range of lifestyles, personality types, and opinions on how best to make this way of living viable for you. 

In many circles, the term “digital nomad” has become synonymous with the word “entrepreneur”, and I’ll admit, I generally tend to lump these two together as well. There are a lot of buzz words that get thrown around with these terms like “hustle” or “grind”; words that seem to reward a mindset of a life that is centered around hard work.

I have seen digital nomads, some that are friends and some that are acquaintances, spend all of their time, energy, and resources on the work or project that they are focusing on. Sacrificing sleep, social time, and overall well-being for the sake of whatever goal they are trying to accomplish.

I have also seen the opposite end of the spectrum. “Digital nomads” who like the idea of this life, more than they actually like the work. Sitting on the beach and talking about the work that they want to do instead of actually doing it.

You want to know the truth? I have also been both of these kinds of digital nomads: the workaholic and the aimless wanderer. What I’ve learned, as you might have guessed, is that balance is absolutely vital to success as a digital nomad.

I’m nowhere near perfect and everyday is a new beast, but the days that I am able to find time to exercise, get enough sleep, do something fun/creative, and accomplish a few hours of focused work, are the days that I feel on top of the world. The periods that I’ve worked 10 hours straight, forgone any sort of exercise, and eat what’s in front of me, I burn out rapidly. As a digital nomad, let balance be your best friend.

Networking is like dating...

…meaning that the more people you meet, the more overwhelming/lost/confused you’ll feel. The more names you have to remember, the more drinks you have to buy, if you think about it, the similarities between networking and dating are kinda vast, and probably why I don’t really like either of them in the traditional sense.

 

On the other side of this coin, the way that I approach networking is really similar to how I approach dating. I do it sparingly and only make an effort when it’s someone that I really vibe with. With both dating and networking, I’ve found that it works much better when you meet people while bonding over a shared interest, instead of trying to force a connection. When I’m out in the world and actively participating in enjoyable activities/hobbies that I’d already be doing anyway, I meet people that I already have a natural connection with, which takes the pressure off of trying to “get” something from someone. The energy of this natural connection feels way less dirty/businessy, and much more like it was meant to be.

Not everyone is cut out to do this, and that’s okay!

I once heard somewhere that entrepreneurs and people who start their own business do so because they have no other choice. That working for someone else is so utterly unappealing to them, that starting their own business is the only thing that they can commit to working on and find fulfillment in. It’s similar to a lot of sentiments I’ve heard for high-risk jobs like in the entertainment or sports field as well, where the people who get into these jobs and actually pursue it, do so because life would almost be unbearable otherwise. Pursuing this life and career choice and failing would be better than finding “success” in any other job, and I can relate to this sentiment.

Now, I’m NOT comparing myself to an entertainer or pro athlete, but there are definite similarities in the riskiness of living a digital nomad lifestyle, as with any sort of start-up business. I think this is an extremely apt view point, because from the outside, what I’m doing and the risks I’m taking with my time, energy, and resources, may seem absolutely bonkers to a lot of people. But, talking to other nomad friends of mine, they completely understand. 

For me, there is no other option. Working for someone else and investing my time into someone else’s company/dream sucks has sucked the life out of me in the past, and currently doesn’t make sense for my life.

I can’t lie, there are many, many perks to living as a digital nomad. Every day I count my lucky stars that this is my life; I am living in a beautiful country, meeting and connecting with fascinating people, and I have the freedom to choose the work that I want to do when I want to do it. I often have moments where I stop and think, “I cannot believe that this is my life!” But, in truth, my day-to-day is not all coconuts and suntan lotion. The loneliness from being away from my family/missing important events, the difficulty in finding balance, and endless amounts of distraction keep reality a close companion and allow me to stay grounded in gratitude.

Any digital nomads (aspiring or otherwise) out there with their own struggles? Tell me about them in the comments section below or shoot me an email at sara@rebelwritingco.com and let’s chat.