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7 Things I've Learned Since Becoming a Digital Nomad

by Barbara Litzlfellner May 5, 2015

1. Traveling the world as a digital nomad is not the solution to all your problems.

Your problems don’t just hunt you, they overrun you. Traveling means spending a lot of time alone with your thoughts — on planes, trains, buses, during your first walks in the new city, and the first evening in your temporary home. Even working by yourself allows your thoughts to wander off more easily than in the noisy atmosphere of an open-plan office.

In the last few months I have had more than enough time to rethink every single mistake I have ever made in my life, to analyze everything negative down to the smallest detail, from my non-existent relationship with my father to my every not-so-lovable character trait. My friends, the ones I would usually reach out to for support, are halfway around the world and neither Facebook nor Skype can replace the solace of a shared bottle of wine.

I was lonely, I was sad, I came to some realizations that completely threw me of the track and left me shattered in my bed for a couple of days.

But this is also an opportunity to emerge from the ashes with a clear mind and new focus.

And as if dealing with your past would not be difficult enough already, there are also new problems creeping up. I don’t have a constant social circle anymore, finding a partner that supports this kind of lifestyle is even more difficult than finding a “normal” one, and I don’t know how much I will earn next month, or if I will earn anything at all.

If you choose to live as digital nomad, you’ll quickly find out if there is a little Rocky inside of you who fights all the odds and emerges stronger after every setback, or if you are just one of the extras that others meet on their way to the top.

2. I had to cross the words weekend, regular working hours, and minimum wage from my vocabulary.

I did my job, and I did it well, but it didn’t bring me any fulfillment. I worked 9-5, Monday till Friday. Same office, same desk every day. As long as I did my job to a decent standard, I got my decent salary. No real effort was involved or required (nor passion nor determination).

Now that I want to start to build up a reputation as translator and writer, things are different. If clients can’t be sure about the quality of my work, I have to give them other reasons to hire me, and those are usually a low price, a very quick handling time, and 24-hour availability.

If this means that me and my university degree have to work for an hourly wage that is far below any European minimum requirements, then I’ll suck it up and do it. If my client needs something ASAP, I’ll cancel my weekend beach-and-cocktail plans and work a few 14 hour shifts.

The surprising thing about it? I love it. Because despite all the stress and the occasional tight deadlines, it is still me who decides what I do, when I do it, and who I work for.

I can sleep in late and for that I work late in the evening. I can get an hour-long Thai massage whenever I feel like fitting it in between work; I can even drink a glass of wine or two in the evening. Best of all, if I deliver good work, it will not disappear in the anonymity of an international company and contribute to someone else’s profit. It’s me who gets more assignments and who receives all the money and the praise. This is an incredible feeling of independence and self-determination that you will hardly get to know while you slave away your days in a cubicle.

3. On the other side, too much freedom can be pretty disturbing.

I am completely responsible for my life and my actions. Every single day I have to make dozens of decisions, from when to get up to get all my work done to how long I can afford to take a break to what jobs to apply for and when my work is good enough to be delivered. And I’m not even talking about things like deciding about my next destination, the means of transportation, and if I can afford to order that steak or not.

Let’s admit it, in Western society we are not really used to self-responsibility anymore. Everything is regulated and we are swamped in warning signs that tell us to be careful, because the coffee we just have purchased could be — shocker — hot.

I am not in the safe haven of routine anymore. Every single one of my decisions will directly affect and change my future. And every single one of these decisions runs the risk of being the wrong one…and the chance of being the best decision of my life.

But with this responsibility also comes absolute freedom. Cheap tickets to Tel Aviv? Bring it on! I don’t need a reason, I don’t need an excuse — I just need to make a decision.

It took me a while to become completely aware that I could go anywhere anytime I wanted to, that I didn’t have to stay in places just because I had planned to do so.

Still, from time to time this voice crept in my head and said: “I don’t like it here, oh how I wish that I could go to…”

When I went to Southeast Asia it turned out that we were far from the perfect match, like I always had thought we would be. In fact, we had a quite dysfunctional relationship. It took me months to realize that there was one simple solution to my big problem.

I just had to get on the next plane.

4. It’s not a miracle.

It’s hard work, determination, naïvety, and perpetual ignorance of any socially-accepted forms of living.

The main difference between a successful digital nomad and somebody who just dreams of being one is that single step out of the front door. The leap of faith that can catapult you to all the places you always wanted to go to, geographically and professionally.

Nowadays, everybody who can afford to buy a laptop has the ability to earn money independent of location. You’re bilingual? Translate. You have stories to tell? Write. You’re good at organizing stuff? Sort out Excel data.

Don’t wait till the possibilities come to you. Go out, hunt them down, and show no mercy till your foot is in whichever door you want it to be in.

5. Letting go of old loves and frequent re-adjusting of dreams.

For years, the walls of my room have been covered with pictures of Angkor Wat, Thai pagodas, and Buddhist temples. I own dozens of Thai and Vietnamese cookbooks, and not even the gross production process of fish sauce stops me from calling it one of my favorite seasonings. After almost two decades of dreaming of Southeast Asia, I finally bought a plane ticket and arrived there a few months ago — a dream come true.

Long story short: Southeast Asia is just not my cup of tea and I had to wave my childhood dream, which was such an essential part of my life, goodbye.

Letting go of lifelong dreams is not an easy thing. But it also gave me the chance to re-evaluate my life and to come up with some new dreams. I finally realized that, while being distracted by Asian cookbooks and sushi, I had already found my true loves. I’ve lost my heart to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Now that I’ve broken up with Southeast Asia (we are still good friends, though), I can finally focus on these places without being distracted by the longing for other ones.

6. There is no point in planning ahead for months.

German as I am, I tend to make plans months ahead. I have cancelled every single one of them.

Dreams get crushed, new ones come to life, opportunities show up, and sometimes I just want to see my friends for a few days. And slowly I learn to let things just happen, despite all my urges to control everything.

7. In all these uncertainties I know one thing for certain: I don’t regret his life decision for one second.

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