In India, the standard line of questioning goes:
“Madam, which country?”
“How old are you?”
“Why aren’t you married?”
After a congressional inquisition into my marital status, the questions shift to my job. What does Madam do?
Now imagine trying to explain what a digital nomad is.
“Well, I travel around the world and write a blog and help people find their own path to personal and professional fulfillment” doesn’t usually go over without a lot of squinting and muttering at me in Tamil, so I try, “I’m a…writer?” with only slightly less confused frowning.
These men and women work day and night so their children can go to school and have a chance to someday work in an office or hospital or courtroom in the big city and marry well. And here’s a purposely single vagabond who wants nothing to do with even an apartment lease in one zip code, no less a “stable” and single-pronged career.
I might as well just beam back up onto the mothership and call it a day.
I’ve been a self-sustaining digital nomad for about 11 months now, and while thousands of articles and blogs on the web glamorize the nomad lifestyle, I’m now able to answer with brutal honesty: Is it really all it’s cracked up to be? What have I learned?
Here’s the real talk.
On the one hand, I love it. Traveling has always been the best investment I make in myself, and being able to wake up everyday in a new place with a completely self-directed mission is a privilege. On the other hand, I occasionally walk through downtown Singapore or New Delhi and experience pangs of what can only be classified as cubicle envy, watching swarms of well-dressed corporates running to get coffee together.
Whether they’re chattering about exciting new ideas or how much they hate their jobs, their camaraderie is a visible aura — people who work together every day, see each other every day, who feel part of something every day, for better or for worse.
Then I stroll back to my guesthouse in a hippie skirt and sandals and play with my own ideas, write my own articles, and work with my own clients. Like any digital nomad, I live alongside an alternate reality that most people the world over are a part of, that 9 to 5 grind, and in moments like these I taste the trade-off that comes with being different.
One of my favorite things that’s happened to me on the road is a true, blissful detachment from material things. I’ve been living with less than 50kg of belongings for over 3 years now, and I typically live well on about $20 a day. I won’t live like this forever, but by pushing the limits to see firsthand just how little money and how few possessions I really need is a lifelong wisdom many people will intellectually explore but never practically experience.
Another boon is that if I continue on this path, I’ll never be one of those people with a long wish-list of things to do in life but “no time” for doing them. Hitchhiking through Laos? Motorbiking in India? Studying silent meditation? Moving to Berlin? Working on a farm? With the economic necessities sorted, I simply dream up what I want to do and go do it.
We can all do this, but most people marry themselves to rigid ideas about life, as if working non-stop from 21 to 65 were built into our DNA and charting a different course may cause self-implosion.
Even when I stop traveling full-time, I’ll never tell myself “I don’t have time” to do something. Leaving jobs, working for myself, and living on a bootstrap have taught me not to fear anything or anyone, and to experience the full spectrum of human freedom and intelligence.
One of the deepest challenges of experimenting with digital nomadism has been spending time in villages everywhere from Ethiopia to Laos and witnessing deeply-rooted communities that support every branch of their human ecosystem. Places where, if someone loses his job, the whole village pitches in; if a mother falls ill, someone will care for her children; if a child needs to go to school, the village collects tuition.
Passing through tight-knit communities like these, I feel painfully isolated. Even when I return home, I know I’ll always recognize the Western, fend-for-yourself mentality to be an inferior approach to social organization.
And work-wise, I miss belonging to something with a life of its own, working in a team, receiving more feedback than just commentary from my editors or on social media. Like many people, nomadic or otherwise, my community hangs in the clouds on digital threads, and it’s not substantial enough. For instance, I think actually having a long-term relationship would teach me more than another year in business.
If you think I’m full of contradiction, you’re right. Humans are universally polarized beings, simultaneously gentle and violent, generous and selfish, ambitious and lazy. And there’s two very distinct parts of me, as well: the self who thrives on adventure and independence, and the self who craves normalcy, tradition, and permanence.
Mitigating the rivalry is my free spirit, which now sees some exciting middle ground. We don’t have to work for 45 years in an office and we don’t have to be completely uprooted — we can periodically clear out space for unconventional living by reinventing ourselves, changing careers, negotiating 4-day work weeks and sabbaticals, quitting jobs, starting new businesses, traveling to unusual places, going back to school, asking for big asks, breaking routines and comfort zones, and taking the time we tell ourselves we don’t have.
I have at least 5 more months on the road, and the most important thing is I’m watching my purpose evolve through action. I don’t sit around and wonder what it would be like to be a digital nomad, I’m giving it a go. And I won’t sit around and wonder what it would be like to be a lawyer or a therapist or a non-profit organizer, I’ll give those a go, too.
It may take awhile for my true purpose to iron itself out, but the best way to avoid paralysis in the face of so much opportunity is to just keep learning and experimenting. Everything is a process and everything can be an adventure.
This article was first published on Life Before 30 and is reposted here with permission.