The Best and Worst of Being a Digital Nomad
Almost every time I met a new person over the past few years, they’d say “I want your life!” I was a digital nomad, and people imagine this means I spent my days lounging on pristine beaches, exploring foreign cities, and indulging in stress-free adventures.
Sometimes I did. In the past twelve months I went to eleven foreign countries and six US cities. But in truth, the nomadic lifestyle is misunderstood. While it definitely has wonderful perks, it’s far from an extended vacation, and it comes with a set of challenges I believe many people wouldn’t choose to take on.
Here are, in my opinion, the three best and three worst things about being a digital nomad.
This one’s so important I could probably triple-count it and call it a day.
A lot of people thrive on routine, enjoying the structure of a fixed day-to-day schedule. Digital nomads are different—for us, unpredictability means possibility.
I can wake up in the morning and start working right away, or I can go for a bike ride, or hop on a flight. I can write when I feel inspired, exercise when I feel energized, and socialize when I feel social, rather than having designated times of day to do these things. If I find a deal on a flight to Europe or Mexico, I can buy it and go without having to ask for permission or request time off from work.
The flexibility of a nomadic life calls for some serious self-discipline, which I don’t always succeed in exercising, but I wouldn’t trade my freedom for the world.
People are creatures of habit, but we also love novelty and tend to tire of the ‘same old thing.’ That’s why we like trying new restaurants, going to new places, and meeting new people.
A nomadic life means constant novelty on a large scale. When you plop yourself in a country you’ve never been to, everything’s new: the scenery, the language, the people, the food. This can be incredibly frustrating, but also deeply stimulating.
Travel gives you a new set of eyes and ears, and you notice things you wouldn’t notice at home. The possibilities feel endless: Who will you meet? What will you learn? What kind of crazy stories will you collect?
We go to new places partly for the places themselves, but what travel really comes down to is people. Digital nomads have the opportunity to be exposed to so many different kinds of people, and barriers like nationality, age, and social class fall away—you befriend the people who happen to be in the same place as you at the same time.
These connections can be temporary or they can turn into meaningful relationships. But no matter their duration, they broaden your perspective in a way that staying at home simply can’t. I’m continually surprised and delighted by the variety of people I meet on my travels.
Think about the things you do, people you see, and places you go regularly. Besides colleagues, you probably have sports teams, creative groups, neighborhood associations, and various other forms of community.
Now take all that away and picture just you, alone, going about your daily life with no consistent group interactions. That’s the life of a digital nomad.
We meet people on the road, and efforts to build digital nomad communities are growing. But for every moment spent sharing stories and laughing with new friends, there’s a moment of asking for a table for one, staring at a menu in a language you don’t speak, and feeling utterly alone.
Moving from place to place means you either don’t have time to build community, or you build it then leave it behind shortly after. Dating is difficult too.
If you want to be a digital nomad, Marilyn Monroe’s famous line “I just adore my own company” better ring true with you.
2. Work comes first
To travel you need money, and to make money you need to work. Any digital nomad who’s holding down a job or running a business will tell you that no matter where they are in the world, they prioritize their career responsibilities above all else.
For me, this meant skipping a glacier hike in Patagonia to make an article deadline. It meant arriving in Berlin on a Friday and instead of hitting the town, sitting in video conferences with my colleagues in California until midnight. It means planning a surf trip for when the waves are best, but knowing that if unexpected work comes up I’ll be looking at those waves through a window.
When you’re in an office for eight hours a day you feel like you’re working (and your colleagues think you’re working) whether or not you truly are. When you’re in another country, your work has to speak for itself, day in and day out.
3. Less time for other passions
Outside of work, you probably spend time hanging with friends and family, pursuing various interests and hobbies, and working on personal projects.
Take at least half that time and picture spending it at a computer doing travel research. Where are you going next? What’s the best way to get there? Where will you stay? How do you do it all within a reasonable budget?
This research, not to mention getting the lay of the land once you arrive in a new place, takes time and energy away from your other passions. I have a novel manuscript I’ve been meaning to rework for over a year, songs I’d like to learn on piano, and books I want to read—but these get de-prioritized when I have to figure out where I’ll be sleeping next month.
Is it worth it?
We can’t have it all, and digital nomads knowingly trade community and stability for freedom and adventure. It’s as limiting in some ways as it is freeing in others. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not forever—but if you can make it work, it can be pretty amazing.