What Is The Digital Nomad Lifestyle? The Unvarnished Truth


“The Digital Nomad Lifestyle,” this phrase ought to be trademarked by scammy digital nomad bloggers trying to convince you that it means: taking your laptop to the beach and then working for an hour in paradise, before picking up a million-dollar paycheck, and repairing to the bar with the most beautiful partner you can imagine.

In reality: there is no such thing as the digital nomad lifestyle.

Digital nomads come in all shapes and sizes, they work in all sorts of places, they come from an incredible number of places and none of them are working for an hour a day on the beach and making bank.

In fact, in a recent poll on a digital nomad Facebook forum – fewer than 1% of those nomads had ever worked on a beach at all.

However, that’s not to say that the lack of an “off the shelf” digital nomad lifestyle is a bad thing. It’s not.

It means that you can tailor your digital nomad experience to your wants and needs. You are not putting on a straight jacket – you’re embracing freedom.

What Do You Need To Be A Digital Nomad?

 

A digital nomad working in a cafe.

A digital nomad is someone who works online and travels. If you don’t work – you’re not a digital nomad. If you don’t need to work – you’re incredibly lucky and we’re jealous of you but you’re still not a digital nomad. If you don’t work online – you can be a nomad but you’re not a digital one.

If you don’t travel – you’re not a nomad. This ought to be obvious but recently we’ve seen a spate of people declaring themselves to be “Nomad 2.0” and insisting this kind of nomad doesn’t need to travel. This is, of course, utter nonsense.

You don’t need very much to be a digital nomad, but you do need:

  • Work which allows you to travel – this may not mean unlimited freedom to go anywhere but it does mean that you ought to be able to work from places that are neither “home” nor “the office”
  • The right to travel – you may need a passport if you want to be an international nomad, you may need some form of national ID if you want to nomad in your own country (this varies from country to country – you probably know if this applies to you)
  • The tools of your trade – which need to be portable enough to travel. There’s a reason you don’t meet any Digital Nomad MRI Technicians on the road; you can’t fit an MRI machine in a suitcase. For most nomads, this is likely to be a laptop and, possibly, a smartphone. Some may add audio, video, etc. equipment too.
  • An Internet connection – working from anywhere isn’t always practical. Most digital nomads are going to need regular and reliable access to the Internet.

And that’s it.

The Most Common Forms Of Digital Nomad

 

A digital nomad using a tablet computer

Everyone’s mileage may vary on the types of nomad they meet on the road. Out here in South East Asia, the mix of nomads in the community is going to be very different from those found in London or New York. There’s no “right way to nomad” or “wrong way to nomad” – as long as you work online and travel – you’re just fine.

However, these are the most common forms of digital nomad:

Freelancers

In my experience, most digital nomads are freelancers. That is, they are people who work for themselves and sell their expertise to clients. Freelancers can work in almost any field; I am a freelance writer. I know freelance coders, designers, medical professionals, legal advisors, etc.

Successful freelancers will normally have had a spate of years of work in professional roles in which they have developed a strong skill set. This makes it easier for them to find clients and to demonstrate their business knowledge when wooing clients.

That’s not to say you can’t start freelancing with no marketable skills but it’s a long, hard, badly paid road to success.

Remote Workers

It’s possible that these guys make up most of the digital nomad workforce, but I remain skeptical. I’ve heard younger nomads insist that remote work dominates but the evidence remains weak.

This is certainly the easiest route for many nomads. You get a job. Your employer says, “you’re free to nomad.” You get a salary, you get benefits and enjoy life on the road. The trouble is that there are still far fewer nomadic jobs advertised than you’d expect if these folks were in the majority and the competition for these roles is intense.

We’ve also noticed that most remote work seems to have very strong restrictions on where you can travel, often limiting employees to the state or country they are in or to a specific time zone.

It’s not a bad way to go but it’s not perfect either.

Entrepreneurs/Startup Owners

This is often the role that is sold to wannabe digital nomads. Start your own business. Keep your expenses low by living somewhere cheap. Then start making $$$$ and enjoy an amazing lifestyle.

If this was how life worked – it would be awesome. You can certainly find successful examples of digital nomad entrepreneurs but if you scratch the surface: many nomad success stories don’t contain very much truth.

In my experience, the most successful entrepreneurs who are digital nomads built their businesses whilst working for other people. Then they quit when their business made enough money for them to nomad.

Whatever the facts are – there is no doubt that these people are in the minority of the current digital nomad workforce. They are, also, often addicted to selling the “digital nomad lifestyle” rather than anything of substance. Caveat emptor.

How Often Do Digital Nomads Travel?

 

Toy Bus On A Beach For Digital Nomads

Great question. There are no rules mind you but it’s still a great question.

Those who are intending to nomad for short periods of time will often travel quickly. They move every week or two and rush from destination to destination.

In my experience, this is not sustainable in the long-term. It means essentially making “tourist” a full-time job while often trying to do a full-time job on top. Two jobs, endlessly changing cities, the horrors of airports, delayed flights, etc. they add up to burnout.

They also often end up leaving the nomad broke because they end up neglecting their job to have fun and then they’re heading home very disillusioned with the “digital nomad lifestyle.” If you’re really unlucky, they’ll then write some tedious piece on “Why digital nomads aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting an ambitious pace to start with. After all, the freedom of getting out from under is exhilarating. But there comes a time to slow down too.

Today, I almost never spend less than a month in any location and most of the time I’d prefer to spend 3-9 months before moving on. Traditional pastoral nomads didn’t race from destination to destination. They stopped and took their time when the grazing was good, and they moved on fast when things weren’t to their liking.

One thing is for certain becoming a digital nomad doesn’t mean you are entering a travel race. There are no prizes for visiting the most places. Fast travel can be fun, but you miss out on deeper experiences and, in particular, you may find that it quickly becomes lonely.

Choose your own pace and don’t be ashamed of it. The real “digital nomad lifestyle” is the freedom to make decisions that make you happy.

The only time I travel quickly nowadays is if I am on a genuine vacation and I am just being a tourist – no work to be done.

Most successful digital nomads are all about slow travel. This is a lifestyle, not a backpacking vacation which has to end in 6 months’ time. You’ve got time to enjoy the world as well as to see it.

Where Do Most Digital Nomads Live?

 

The Manila Skyline A Popular Digital Nomad Destination

There are digital nomads living in tents, cars, and vans. They, however, are certainly not the majority of nomads nor are they particularly representative of them.

Most nomads live in cities. They live in cities because they offer up the kind of infrastructure most people need to get work done. That is – co-working spaces to work from, reliable internet connections, some basic networking opportunities, a wide range of accommodation choices available, etc.

It would be misleading to say that “nobody nomads at the beach” because some people do but they are a distinct minority. Beaches are not the ideal work locations. Rain, sea, sand, sun, etc. all sound nice in principle but all can interfere not just with your work but the long-term health of your electronic equipment.

What is more realistic, is living near a beach, doing the work at home (or a co-working space or café) and then going to the beach. This won’t stop the Instagram genius from taking their laptop to the beach for that picture, but it is the reality of things.

In terms of countries that digital nomads live in – there is often an assumption that nomads will live in poorer nations because of the lower cost of living. It is certainly true that many nomads live up (down?) to this stereotype but many others are living and working in their own countries or more expensive places that they’ve always wanted to live in.

Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Ubud, Bali, Indonesia are the two cliché destinations for digital nomads and it’s true that both “nomad hubs” are very popular with a certain type of nomad. (Usually, young, first significant time away from home and with not much of a plan for their nomad life – as you might expect, turnover in these “communities” is very high indeed).

Facebook, Reddit, etc. can give a very distorted picture of how big the digital nomad community actually is. If you were to look at the Facebook Chiang Mai Nomad group (and I would suggest that you don’t because it’s not very useful) you would think there were tens of thousands of nomads in the city.

In reality, the vast majority of members of these groups are lurkers dreaming of the “digital nomad lifestyle” but who will never actually take the plunge and try the life out for more than a week.

Then there is a big chunk of people who did a “digital nomad vacation” or a vacation on which they did a tiny amount of work but decided that made them a digital nomad, and then a tiny number of people actually in the city working as a digital nomad at the time.

This is why this Facebook group is so useless – when most of your members aren’t in Chiang Mai; the information they offer about what’s going on tends to be outdated or just plain wrong.

So, in short, before I lose the point completely – digital nomads are everywhere but they may not be the beachbound Instagram models that social media has led you to expect.

Where Do Digital Nomads Work?

 

A Very Plush Home Office For A Lucky Digital Nomad

Those who shout loudest enough will say “co-working spaces” but they would be wrong. I’ve seen multiple groups of working nomads survey their members and the majority work from home (wherever that may be).

Working from home is quieter and easier than working anywhere else. You can start as soon as you want, finish when you want and there’s no commute. Genuinely independent people can motivate themselves to get work started and completed.

That’s not to say that co-working can’t come in handy. Co-working spaces are often very cheap and offer faster internet than you may get at home (or more reliable internet in some places). They provide a place to do a little networking and they normally offer facilities for things like printing and scanning that you might not have at home.

I’d estimate that I use a co-working space about 3-5 times a year for the extra facilities. I know very few people who use them daily for any length of time.

However, I am based in South East Asia mainly amongst digital nomad freelancers and solo entrepreneurs. I can imagine that this is a bit different in London or New York where collaborative working might play a much bigger role in the nomad’s life.

The other digital nomad option instead of working from home or co-working is working from a café. Cafes are often great places to work but in most of the world they are not a place to conduct loud Skype calls (or any kind of call) and you are expected to regularly buy food and drink to justify the space you take up. It can work out cheaper than co-working if you just need an hour or two to work in.

What Kind Of Routines Do Digital Nomads Follow?

On this, there is very little common ground. I like to get up at the crack of dawn and have most of my work down by mid-afternoon. One of my business partners, on the other hand, prefers to start in the evenings and work through to the wee small hours. My other business partner likes early afternoon and finishes in the evening.

We’re all different. However, the one thing that marks a successful nomad, from one going home to whine about how “the digital nomad lifestyle” let them down, is that they develop a routine that suits them, and they know that work commitments come before partying/traveling.

So, The Digital Nomad Lifestyle?

As I said when we began – there’s no such thing as “the digital nomad lifestyle.” In fact, all my experience suggests that what most people consider to be the digital nomad lifestyle is atypical and quite possibly non-existent.

Most nomads don’t work from the beach, they don’t work from co-working spaces, they’re not entrepreneurs, etc.

But as I also said at the beginning, that’s OK. You’re free to choose your own experiences. This morning, I look out of an apartment window in Chiang Mai at the mountains on the city boundary and it’s lovely.

Sooner or later, we’re off to Danang to be “near the beach” for a bit. We probably won’t spend much time on the beach, but we’ll definitely be exploring Central Vietnam and having fun. Then, we have our sights set on the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia but… plans can change, and they often do.

That’s the digital nomad lifestyle. The freedom to go anywhere, do anything and see the world you want to see. With a bit of luck, we’ll see you on the road somewhere and you can tell us about your unique experiences.

 

Nicholas Barang

Nicholas Barang is a veteran digital nomad. In fact, he was probably "digital nomading" before it was called that. He believes that anyone can make a free and independent life if they want to. He wants to help those who commit to finding their own path. And to cut through the nonsense told about this "lifestyle" by those in search of a quick buck. If you want to reach him you can send him an e-mail at nicholasbarang@gmail.com or to nick at nomadtalk.net.

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