What Won't Most Digital Nomads Tell You?

8 minute read

It’s virtually impossible (or at least damn hard) to get an objective answer to this question. There are various cognitive biases in play, which are as varied as digital nomads themselves.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In the past decade, I have traveled extensively as a digital nomad/expat and met

  • 9-5 people who never wanted to be digital nomads
  • 9-5 people craving to be digital nomads, only to regret the decision in a matter of months
  • 9-5 people on a year-long sabbatical (backpackers, burned out 9-5ers, wannabe entrepreneurs) who claimed they are digital nomads, but went back to 9-5 after they ran out of money
  • 9-5 people turned digital nomads who are happy ever since (yours truly, for example - although I wouldn’t call myself a true digital nomad, but that’s an entirely different can of worms, best to be left untouched for now)
  • digital nomads who never held a 9-5 job, and love it/hate it/want to escape it/didn’t figure it out yet/never will
  • former digital nomads who were happy to go back to 9-5 and are on cloud nine ever since (even though they were escaping the 9-5 grind before going remote)
  • people switching between 9-5 and remote/digital nomad lifestyle, always craving the one they are not currently in (obviously, the problem is elsewhere in their case)
  • all sorts of successful people working remotely (who might-but usually don’t-call themselves a digital nomad) looking down on digital nomads (in their definition, a crowd of clueless ~20-year-old backpackers, trying to look cool with their MacBooks)
  • single guys/gals, couples, friends, families, small or large groups traveling together (spontaneously or via one of the companies organizing it) who I would consider DNs
  • … and a lot of people not quite fitting into either, or combining more of the above boxes
  • plus, there is undoubtedly an endless list of further categories I don’t even have an idea about

Photo by Dan Gribbin on Unsplash

And, if this weren’t enough, people are in constant state of flux; for example, I have seen DNs progress like this (there might be more, or less, and definitely different states as well):

  1. Dream: Digital nomads are the new rich, just look at MegaSuccessfulDNatBali’s Instagram, she’s totally crushing it! [heavy breathing, uncontrollable drooling]
  2. Euphoria: I’m a digital nomad now, this is the best thing that ever happened to me! Poor cubicle dwellers, they have no idea how cool it is to work by the rooftop pool! And that jungle trek! And the food, and the ocean and…
  3. Cooldown: Being a digital nomad is cool, only if there wouldn’t be so much shit attached to it… client1 forgot to pay, and I have a flight to catch, but I need to quickly finish something for client2 first and check out from my Airbnb ASAP - but hey, it’s all part of being a DN, isn’t it?
  4. Frustration: Okay this is getting frustrating… I wish I could go surfing with those cool dudes I got to know yesterday, but I’m running out of money and need to rock this gig. Probably tomorrow - argh, no, I have to do my accounting and also pick up my laptop from the service, and I’m running out of groceries, and…
  5. Desperation: Fuck. This. Shit. How easy it is for Joe - he just shows up at 9am, probably works an hour or two (the rest is spent on meetings, water cooler chat, endless email checking, planning, lunch, email, more chat, trying to look busy, etc.), leaves at 5pm and doesn’t give a flying f**k about anything work-related past that point. (not to mention bookkeeping, chasing new clients, marketing himself, loneliness, boredom, working on weekends, …)
  6. Resignation: Okay, time to admit it: I’m in over my head. There’s no Instagram for ‘digital nomad difficulties’ so how could I have known? Where do I go from here? [evil grin of schadenfreude as a few newly minted digital nomads enter the cafe, oozing with optimism and full of high hopes. Ha! They are in for a rough ride!]

Where do I go from here?!

Everyone is somewhere in their digital nomad journey, and almost everyone is going to give a warped answer based on that: Instagrammers will keep on posting the cream of the crop, wannabes will armchair theorize, and haters gonna hate. However, only a very few people are truly capable of, and willing to, paint a realistic picture of being a digital nomad.

No wonder - it’s an impossible task. How would you describe the life of a 9-5 employee or an expat? (and, at least, it’s pretty easy to decide if someone is a 9-5 employee or an expat-while there are endless (and hopelessly futile) discussion on the topic of who is or isn’t a digital nomad). Sure, digital nomads are similar by traveling and working remotely - but well, cubicle dwellers are similar by not traveling and working on-site, yet that doesn’t make them any easier to characterize.

Every journey is different. I would have given (and still giving) a skewed answer based on my ‘DN age’:

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

  • If asked at the beginning of my digital nomad life, I would have told you: this is the best thing that ever happened to me! The feeling of freedom, the thrill of the unknown, the vast and exotic range of possibilities literally on my doorstep was mesmerizing.
  • As exotic turned into mundane, I started to see the problems that have been there from the beginning, but invisible through my rose-colored glasses. Alternatively, they turned from the best thing ever into ‘noooo, not again’ (case in point: visa runs. At first, every visa run was a fantastic opportunity to see a new country; after about a dozen visa runs, it became a chore and a source of frustration and money/energy drain). At this point, my answer would have been a bit more cautious.
  • After a few downright horrible experiences (some, like a stupid motorbike accident, or steering clear of a cult we got sucked into temporarily, could have been avoidable; others, like tropical diseases, witnessing my 2-year-old’s tiny hand jammed in the elevator door, almost falling off my scooter because of a python who ate 6 hens for breakfast created a natural roadblock, or malicious officers looking to extort ridiculous bribes) I might have sounded frustrated, to the point of being bitter
  • After a few years of riding rollercoasters of all shapes and sizes all over the place, and thinking I have seen it all, I would have probably answered like a know-it-all, condescending asshole. Thankfully, I have been too busy for that, as staying afloat took all my energy (no, the life of a digital nomad isn’t exclusively about rooftop pools, sunsets and jungle treks).
  • Right now, after well over a decade in the trenches, watching two daughters grow up on the road, going through thick and thin, meeting people from all walks of life, experiencing all sorts of shit - I’m cautious with my words (especially criticism of others), to the point of sounding too philosophical/impractical, I guess.

Sure, the digital nomad life comes with a load of challenges, but so does any other kind of life: whether you are a poverty-stricken kid in Ethiopia scavenging for food, a frustrated office worker in a dead-end 9-5 job dreaming about becoming a digital nomad, or a Russian oligarch trying to avoid assassination on a daily basis.

‘But Trinity, the Ethiopian kid doesn’t claim his/her life is glamorous, posts by overjoying 9-5 guys are not popping up in my IG feed either, and I don’t recall anything by Russian oligarchs…’

Fair enough! But then, the issue of concealing details of the big picture might not be related to digital nomadism per se; It’s just that the digital nomad life is super-suitable to be broadcast to the most prominent global forum of pretension ever invented: social media.

Photo by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

At this point, we don’t need FacebookGate (aka Cambridge Analytica #fail) and various researches (which nevertheless have been conducted, and support this claim) to realize that social media can be harmful. Comparing yourself to the combined best moments of 100s of people (aka your ‘friends’), delivered in your face on every device you own all the time is a recipe for disaster.

Yes, digital nomads are more ‘guilty’ of showering you with exceptional social media updates. However, they are not necessarily more evil than average Joe from Boring st. 123 working at ACME corp. The DNs just happen to travel to more fascinating places, do more exciting activities and go through more non-standard life situations in a few months than Joe does in years (potentially ever). As a result, their FB-IG-irritation-emission level is way higher.

Let’s imagine that Joe posts to FB that he got promoted, and that he’s eating fabulous seafood at PIER 39, and her daughter won the essay contest. Does he try to conceal that his boss is an asshole, his credit cards are maxed out (so he should be eating in), and that her daughter doesn’t speak to her because whatever teenage BS (facts which he does NOT post to FB)? I don’t think so.

It’s human nature to use social media in this manner, rather than DN-specific behavior.

Yes, there’s a particular group of digital nomads whose livelihood depends on their perfectly manicured IG feeds featuring mojitos in the sunset, volcano climbing, diving at the best spots, buying live lobster from local fishermen, etc. and generally making the lifestyle look like it’s all sunshine and rainbows.

There are also plenty of nomads who project the perfect picture 247, even when they are struggling, which they won’t admit, ever.

In general, though, digital nomads are just people like you and me. They aren’t trying to ‘not tell us’ things any more than our run-of-the-(non-digital)-mill hero, Joe.

Unfortunately, DN snake oil salesmen, tricksters and Everything is Awesome!!! people are the most adept at rapid-fire posting mind-numbing amount of coolness. Try to ignore them: good wine needs no bush, as they say.

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