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A “digital nomad” is someone who earns money completely online (hence, “digital”) and, as a result, has the freedom to be location-independent (hence, “nomad”).
This lifestyle has become especially popular in recent years. Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat are flooded with accounts of young people who have supposedly created their own business online and have found the freedom to work from their laptop while traveling the world full-time.
I suspect that 50% of these young people are traveling using their parent’s money, another 40% only have enough cash flow to survive for six months, and the other 10% are genuinely earning enough to sustain a nomadic lifestyle.
But are these 10% really living the dream? Is traveling the globe while earning money from your laptop the secret to finding bliss?
For some, maybe. For most, probably not.
The Dark Side of Being a Digital Nomad
I have never personally been a digital nomad, but it is a lifestyle I have considered pursuing. Based on my own research, I have noticed that most digital nomads share an eerily similar story about their experiences.
Most say that traveling to different countries and embracing new cultures on a regular basis is exciting and eye-opening at first. Living in a different place each week brings opportunity for new adventures. Exploring new cities is exhilarating. But after the initial excitement wears off, loneliness creeps in.
These nomads meet plenty of people in their travels, but rarely acquire close friends. After a while, they start to miss their family, having deep conversations with people they love, and feeling a sense of community.
Along with this, most young people who pursue this lifestyle seem to find out quickly just how hard it can be to earn money online.
For anyone who has ran a blog for a year or longer, you know just how difficult it actually is to be profitable. For this reason, most digital nomads are actually just freelancers who don’t earn a living from their own blog. Instead, they work as consultants, pick up odd writing jobs, do short-term coding gigs, or act as social media managers for companies.
It doesn’t take long to realize that being a freelancer still means you have to rely on someone else for a paycheck. As I recently read in this article, one digital nomad discovered that freelancing wasn’t as glamorous as he had hoped:
“But, like anything, the novelty wore off. Working from home became my new normal, and I was bothered by the fact I still had to rely on someone else for my paycheck. I quickly found that unless you absolutely love what you’re doing or building your own business, it will get stale. For me, it took about a year to discover I hated my new job.
I realized that I was no different than an office wage-slave saving up for a new television or iPhone. Only my vices were drinking and partying.”
This is the “dark side” of being a digital nomad that you don’t see in the exotic Instagram pictures.
Community and Meaningful Work
Belonging to a community and doing meaningful work are both required to live a happy life.
In The Village Effect, Susan Pinker traveled to Sardinia, the island with the highest rate of centenarians (people who are 100 + years old) in the world, to find out why people were living such long lives.
It turns out that Sardinians often live in close-knit villages, where families live in close-proximity to each other and grandparents often live in the same house as their grandchildren.
The elderly keep busy each day playing with their grandchildren, baking at home, and frequently taking walks around the village. These people live so long because they are part of a community that helps them feel young.
The importance of social circles has been documented in other books as well. A sense of community and belonging is inherently good for our mental and physical health.
The other factor that tends to correlate with high happiness levels is meaningful work. The people who wake up with a feeling of purpose, who feel that they’re contributing something important to the world, are among the happiest people on earth.
An obvious example is Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger at age 87 and 94, respectively. These guys have never “retired” from working because they love what they do.
An example of someone I personally know who loves his work is a guy who sits near me at my office. He has been with our company for over 20 years. Every day there is a constant stream of people who stop by his cube to chat, sometimes about work, but mostly about life. The guy is constantly laughing and joking throughout the day.
He truly seems to love the people he works with and his position within the corporation. He seems to have found both his dream job and a social circle all in one place. I bet he’ll be with our company until he retires.
Is Being a Digital Nomad Ideal for Community and Meaningful Work?
I would argue that you can find meaning in your work as a digital nomad. I don’t think you need to be in an office environment or even work with a team to have a truly enjoyable work life. I personally prefer to work alone.
But I think a huge percentage of people pursue the digital nomad lifestyle because they believe it’s the magic ticket to earning money doing what they love. Most don’t realize just how hard it is to run your own business and earn money from your passion. More than likely, you’ll still have to work for a company to earn money online. For some people, this type of work might not be any better than a traditional 9-5 job.
In terms of community, I would argue that a digital nomad lifestyle does not lend itself well to forming deep connections with people and becoming a member of a larger “village.” If you’re constantly on the move, you’re never giving yourself enough time to establish roots and form relationships. I think this is why most people who pursue this lifestyle experience deep loneliness at some point.
Connections > Location
When most of us imagine what it’s like to lead a different lifestyle, it’s easy to imagine the good. It’s easy to picture oneself sitting on a beach, surrounded by white sand, looking out over a clear blue ocean. It’s not so easy to picture oneself sitting in a hotel, with nobody to talk to for days at a time, not knowing the native language and feeling a deep sense of loneliness.
I have this hypothesis that many of us fantasize that certain locations will bring us bliss, while ignoring the fact that connections are far more important. You can live in a place where the weather is miserable 365 days a year, but still be perfectly content if you’re surrounded by people you know and love. It’s much harder to live in a place where the weather is flawless 365 days per year but you have no family or friends to connect with.
I watched a documentary on Netflix recently that took place in North Dakota. It took place in a town where the temperature was freezing cold most of the year and the environment looked like a barren wasteland. Yet, when interviewed, most of the people in the town said something along the lines of “This is my home. These are my neighbors. This is my community. Why would I ever leave?”
The Importance of Awareness
I used to think that being a digital nomad was the ultimate lifestyle worth pursuing. But the more stories I have read, videos I have watched, and podcasts I have listened to, the more I have heard the same message from countless digital nomads: The grass is not always greener on the other side.
I still may try to be a digital nomad some day, but I at least know ahead of time that it’s not the magic formula for finding bliss. I have realized that the work you do and the people you connect with are far more important than the place you live. You can find bliss anywhere. You don’t have to travel full-time through southeast Asia to find it.
Currently I live close to my parents, my siblings, and my best friends. I enjoy seeing the same people at the gym each day. I like knowing the baristas at the local coffee shops. I enjoy having a little village.
Although one day I may try to travel the globe and earn a living from my laptop, I’m not fooling myself into thinking that lifestyle will be the golden ticket to pure bliss. Happiness is found in what you do and who you connect with, not where you live or where you work from.
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