So you Want to be a Digital Nomad?
The reality of freelancing on the move isn’t social media marketing. Be clear and honest about why it appeals to you.
Being at Paris-Nord train station 3.5 hours before departure is a little overkill, even for the compulsive planner I am. Then again, transport strikes have been paralyzing the French capital since the beginning of December. While we can still get around, we have to allow for a lot of extra time in case we get held up on the way or the bus is too full to get on, which happens a lot. On occasion, you might arrive where you’re going to ridiculously early, in which case the best thing to do when you’re a digital nomad is to get some work done.
Even on a Saturday morning among people preparing to go celebrate the New Year with friends and families.
Mine is the only laptop out in the packed café at this early hour; everyone else is chilling out and munching on croissants. Much as I would like to follow their lead, I’m a little hesitant to do so for now as taking a break has been anathema to me in the last year.
“Have laptop, will travel,” has been my motto since December 2018; I’ve spent the last 12 months living out of a suitcase in transit. Digital nomadism has been my lifeline; it’s how I’ve been supporting myself while helping my parents navigate the reality of stage 4 cancer. Without freelance writing and editing, I’d never have been able to come back to Europe and much less stay this long.
But what may sound enviable on paper bears no resemblance to what influencers peddle on social media. Unlike in developing countries, dollars don’t go very far at all here in Western Europe; in fact, they don’t even stretch as far as they do back in Puget Sound. For anyone unfamiliar with the Pacific Northwest, that’s the Seattle metro area, one of the most expensive in the continental US.
Making it work this long has been a challenge that called for extreme budgeting and innumerable sacrifices.
Save for when I’ve been in Portugal or Germany, I’ve never had to pay rent but that doesn’t mean I didn’t contribute anything to the households where I’ve stayed. What’s more, my transport costs absorbed most of my small budget, a necessity to try and keep my mental health on an even keel. Escaping to the Netherlands is how I’ve managed to keep up a brutal pace; a safe space to regroup and unconditional support made all the difference.
Early on, I understood presence would be the real payoff for the kind of work I do as I earn surprisingly little in monetary terms. But flexible scheduling has enabled me to be on the day oncology ward for treatment and appointments alongside my parents and that is priceless. My family is the reason I opted for freelancing instead of temping, because even though I’m plugged into my laptop, I’m around and available.
Coming from journalism has been useful, too, in terms of maintaining focus and an editorial quality baseline. I was already used to working in noisy environments subject to constant interruptions without losing the thread. Somehow, hardship and family constraints unwittingly recreated the sense of urgency I thrived under in news. Slacking was never an option, ditto churning out filler content; time became more precious than ever and monetizing it well key to survival now and in the future.
Paradoxical though it may sound, digital nomadism is how I’ve been growing new roots, albeit portable ones. Every piece of work is a thread in the fabric of a new life, one that affords me set geographical coordinates, stability, and health care. Fabric is foldable, portable, and most importantly it can be patched up and mended whenever the universe rips a hole through it.
Like major depressive disorder incapacitating you for five years as it did me, and destroying everything.
Constraints force you to stretch yourself, take risks, and unleash your creativity so you learn to work efficiently.
And digital nomadism blends all those elements together in varying ratios, depending on what you do, where you are, and who you work for. Upping sticks to venture into the unknown without the safety of creature comforts isn’t for everyone as setbacks are many.
Contingency plans are essential otherwise you will expound much energy worrying about how to make ends meet. This can get so distracting it paralyzes you with fear. And yet, if we spent our time afraid of failure, we’d never get anything started and much less done.
Absent some kind of vision of where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve, a sense of forward direction is difficult to maintain. Without motivation that transcends the personal, i.e. the basic need to earn a living, I don’t think I would have found it in me to keep going under duress. I’m so exhausted I have no idea where my mental wherewithal comes from most days if not from the commitment I made to others to be there for them.
Your “why” is everything and an individualistic “why” could end in crushing disappointment when you find yourself alone. As documented by the antics of celebrities and assorted wealthy folks, money can help you meet most needs but it cannot fulfill them all.
Greed can drive you but it can also eat you alive when you become unable to appreciate the greatness of little things or connect with others.
Digital nomadism can’t work without discipline. When you’re always on the move, the opportunities for distraction and exploration are endless. You also meet fascinating people you will want to engage with and get to know so you’ll need manage your time with discernment.
For example, are you someone who already struggles keeping up with social media notifications? If so, be aware that constant motion and a steady flow of new information will likely overwhelm you at first. You’ll also need to resist the urge to isolate as cutting yourself off from everyone in a new place where you don’t know anyone. Otherwise, your experience is unlikely to be an intellectually enriching one even though it might pay off in financial terms.
Being away from everything that is comfortable and familiar is often excellent for focus; that is why writers’ retreats exist. When I holed up in Lisbon last winter and spring, this is what I ended up doing quite by accident. For me, being away from daily stressors unleashed the kind of creativity that transcends exhaustion and so I gave it free rein. And a chunk of my middle finger as a bonus.
Vocation is in equal parts curse and blessing and having something you enjoy as part of the mix can save you. Perhaps you’re a coder disillusioned with the industry and take on freelance clients to indulge an international scuba diving habit. Sometimes, what pays your bills won’t be the same thing that attracted you to being a digital nomad in the first place. Sometimes, it will be. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, only a sweet spot where your skills, curiosity, and employment prospects intersect.
One thing for sure, digital nomadism will surprise you and upend the way you approach life. I started out with the intent of spending 3 months with my family, moved on to the idea of spending the rest of 2019 in Portugal, and ended up in the Netherlands instead. Not just that but I also understood America and I needed to break up, at least for the foreseeable future, exactly six years after I immigrated. These are only two of the many life alterations being back in Europe caused in 2019, despite still being cash-strapped.
More than anything, ask yourself if you’re prepared for the kind of personal change and growth only the unexpected can engineer.
Then learn as much and enjoy as much of the process as you can while slowly figuring out where it leads.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.