I love what I do.
I would not want to be doing anything else.
Being a digital nomad is great. I get to travel, meet new people, speak different languages, mingle with new and exciting cultures, and learn a whole lot about a world that I didn’t know existed.
And I can sustain this level of nomadicism with my digital work.
Currently, I’m working here at SML as an editor. I’m also a freelance writer, I’ve run part-time businesses before (with very part-time earnings), and soon I’ll be starting up my own blog.
All of these things take place on the internet (with the exception of writing, but posting articles and getting paid requires the internet), so all of these things can be done wherever there’s internet connection.
But being a digital nomad is more than one of these romantic dreams that gets touted by self-professed “internet gurus” that try and sell you their products.
I’m here to say:
- It’s not a particularly glamorous lifestyle.
I’m not sipping Piña Coladas with the Sultan of Brunei on a secluded Thai beach 24/7. Sure, maybe on my day off I’ll do that, but the Sultan of Brunei is also a pretty busy guy.
Really, most of the day I’m working. I’ve got a lot to do and only so much time to do it.
5 Myths About Being A Digital Nomad
I often hear a lot of myths around being a digital nomad. And while some of them may be true for some people, they’re definitely not true for a majority of people.
Here are 5 common myths that need dispelling:
1. I’m rich
If we’re talking about rich in spirit, then yes, I must admit, I’m totally awesome.
But most people also assume I have a lot of money. Surely I must be living a life of luxury if I can afford to travel 24/7.
Well, no, actually.
I’m not rich.
In fact, by USA standards (my home country), I’m really poor.
Part of the reason I travel is because I can’t afford to live in the USA. That’s definitely not all of the reason, but it’s part of it.
Ready for this truth bomb?
It’s cheaper for me to fly around Asia than it is for me live in the cheapest parts of the States.
Now, that said, the USA is a particularly egregious and expensive place to live, but it does say something about my earnings when I can’t even afford to live in my home country.
- Myth: All digital nomads are rich.
- Here’s the truth: By “western” standards, I’m hysterically poor.
2. I do awesome things all the time.
I know you have those Facebook friends that are always posting pictures of their great, adventurous lives while you’re sitting there thinking, “Hey, that douchebag from high school is living such a great life while I’m over here wasting away…”
But the reality is that that one picture is an atypical experience. No one is living that kind of lifestyle 24/7.
Part of the reason that I hate Facebook is because of this selective picking and choosing of what we allow ourselves to show our “friends”. It’s important to remember that what we see on Facebook is not real life.
The reality is that digital nomads are spending most of their time engaged in work projects, sleeping in cramped busses, and dealing with daily logistical issues.
Now, I can definitely post a bunch of pictures of me that will make you jealous of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. And while these moments do indeed define much of my experience, they’re not representative of the overwhelming majority of my time.
I’m not “living the life” that you might think I am simply because all of the pictures I post on Facebook are of me sipping Piña Coladas with the Sultan of Brunei.
Here’s an example…
I’m on a train right now going through the mountains in the south of China. Here’s a picture I just took:
It looks pretty, right?
Well, the scenery is nice…
Here’s that same train ride with the camera pointed the other way:
There’s no power, no internet, it’s cramped, it’s smelly, there are people loudly talking on their cell phones, babies screaming, people snoring, people smoking (on a train!!), this table is really dirty, and my tiny seat could be the most uncomfortable seat I’ve ever sat on in my entire life.
So keep that in mind next time you see me posting the first picture on Facebook.
Because, even for me, a digital nomad, life is usually still pretty rough.
- Myth: Digital nomads are “living the life”.
- Here’s the truth: A vast majority of the time, being a digital nomad is not very “fun”.
3. I can work anywhere there’s the internet.
OK, this one is completely true.
But there’s something else that is also true:
- I spend most of my day looking for the internet.
For most work-from-home people, they do just that- work from home. At their homes, there’s usually pretty decent internet.
For me, I could never “work from home”. I’m a nomad; I need to move. Even if I find a homestay or guesthouse with WiFi, I’ll only “work from home” for 50% (at most) of the time. What’s the point of being in a foreign land if you don’t mingle with the local culture at least a little?
But here’s the catch: Many foreign lands have frustratingly slow (or no) internet.
I spend hours on buses and trains, hunting for a place with WiFi that will let me chill there for at least several hours. And finding that place is often very difficult.
Depending upon where I go, many of these places will have an unwillingly slow internet connection causing me to not be able to do what I need to do. That connection will usually drop out at really important moments and/or become unworkably slow.
Right now, I spent over two hours trying to upload the few pictures that are in this post.
Part of being a nomad is finding and coveting sustenance. For a digital nomad, that sustenance is the internet. Drinking in a nice, big glass of internet is pretty fulfilling when you’ve been traversing a mostly internet desert for a really long time.
But for a traveler, that sustenance is new cultures and experiences. Sitting in a Starbucks in Jakarta is a lot like sitting in a Starbucks in Dayton, Ohio. Nothing new and exciting there.
Trying to find a balance between the priority of traveling and the priority of working is a refined skill set that I have yet to master.
If my friends say, “Hey Eric, we’re going into the jungle for 3 days. Wanna come?”
I have to either work double time to ensure all of my workflow gets done (which means finding an internet source for 2 or more 10+ hour days) or hold out hope that there’ll be some slivers of internet in the jungle (which is… eh, not typical).
Or I have to say that I can’t go (which is a torturous decision that I sometimes need to make).
One of my least favorite images is of the “guru” lounging on a beach chair sipping cocktails while pretty people fan them and rub their feet. They call this “work” because they have their laptops with them.
OK, Mr. I Need To Validate My Lifestyle So You’ll Give Me Money In Order To Perpetuate This Lifestyle That’s Based Entirely On The Broken Promises Of Those Whom I Swindle, you may be “working” like this right now, but you’re probably not getting much done.
There’s not likely to be internet there, and if there is, it’s probably so slow that you’ve downed six or seven cocktails by the time your website finally loads, and now you’re too drunk to work anyway.
Sounds fun, sure, but it’s not productive. And if it’s not productive, it’s not sustainable.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s no substitute for hard work. You won’t be an exception to the rule. It’s not going to happen.
Note: Luckily for me, I’m a writer, so being without internet can still be productive. For instance, I wrote the majority of this on a 10-hour bus ride. (And I’m now editing this on a 23-hour train ride.)
- Myth: The internet is everywhere, and it is always a friend.
- Here’s the truth: The internet almost always sucks in the places I want to spend most of my time.
4. I can travel anywhere I want.
Apart from the aforementioned internet issue, this one is a little more nuanced.
Let me drop a little more truth here:
- Going through customs is not always easy when no one understands what “being a digital nomad” means.
Here’s a fun story:
I was staying in Malaysia for almost 3 months. My visa was for 90 days. When I entered Malaysia, I thought, “Oh cool. I have 90 days to stay in Malaysia”.
I calculated the exact date I needed to leave so I wouldn’t overstay my visa, and I actually left a few days before my necessary departure date. Total win!
Or so I thought…
Apparently, in Malaysia, even though I had 90 days, I wasn’t really supposed to stay for 90 days. I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but that’s what the Malaysian border agents told me. I got held up at the border while three agents asked me repeatedly why I was staying in the country for so long.
Border Agent: “What were you doing in Malaysia for almost three months?”
Me: “I was visiting a friend, traveling, and spending time getting to know the country.”
BA: “Yeah, but what were you doing?”
Me: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
BA: “You were here for three months.”
BA: “Were you working?”
…so here’s the dilemma…
If I say, “Yes”, then I am insinuating that I was illegally working in a foreign country.
If I say, “No”, then I am setting myself up for a litany of questions about how I get money (of which drug dealing is usually an obvious suspicion).
Here’s what the typical “Yes” conversation looks like:
BA: “Were you working?”
Me: “Yes. I work online.”
BA: “So you were working here.”
Me: “Well, yes, sort of… but I don’t work for a company in your country.”
BA: “But if you enter here on a tourist visa, you aren’t allowed to work.”
Me: “Right, but I’m entering for social purposes, not for work.”
BA: “But you’re working.”
Me: “Techincally speaking, yes, but I’m always working. And it has nothing to do with why I’m entering your country.” (although it kind of does)
BA: “So you travel and work?”
BA: “But if you’re here for work purposes, you need to get a work visa.”
Me: “But I’m not here for work purposes, I’m here to travel.”
BA: “While you work?”
BA: “Are you planning on coming back here?”
Me: “At some point, maybe.”
Me: “Because I like to travel around.”
BA: “In order to work?”
Me: “Well, not really. Because I like the country.”
BA: “When are you going back to your home country?”
Me: “Ehh.. I don’t know.”
BA: “You don’t know?”
Me: “Not really, no.”
BA: “But you’re working here…?”
Me: “Sort of, but not really, well, sort of… no? I don’t know. I’m confused now.”
(and so on…)
This conversation usually gets escalated to at least two superiors. After several rounds of the exact same questions, they realize they’ve wasted enough time with me and let me go.
To counter this, here’s the typical “No” conversation:
BA: “Were you working?”
BA: “So you were here for so long without a source of employment.”
BA: “So where do you get money?”
Me: “I have a savings.”
BA: “From a previous job?”
Me: “Something like that.”
BA: “Something like that?”
Me: “Yeah, well, I work online. So in between jobs, I travel.”
BA: “You work online?”
BA: “So were you working online here?”
(cue “Yes” conversation)
And this is a very common occurrence.
Now, I know you’re supposed to lie at the border, but I have a hard time lying about my livelihood. It makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.
And getting questioned like this also feels like some kind of mini-existential crisis because it makes me feel like my lifestyle is somehow not allowed.
Also, I’m a bad liar, so telling the truth always makes me look a lot less sketchy right from the beginning.
This will typically happen once every 1-3 months depending upon how long I stay somewhere (and how relaxed the border agents are). But the questions get even more intense if I decide to re-enter a country I’ve already been to.
Here’s the most annoying part:
- I’m from the USA.
I can roll up to most borders and they’ll just give me a visa. I almost never have to apply for one in advance.
This privilege is what allows me to be so laissez-faire about the whole thing.
I can’t even imagine what this process would be like for someone with a “less valuable” passport. (Actually, I can, because I’ve met some of them, and the things they need to go through are terrifyingly unnecessary.)
I can get away with this behavior because I represent some cultural ideal of “high class”- which is, of course, utter nonsense.
For those digital nomads who come from a less globally dominant country, traveling freely around the world requires much more money (for things like visa applications), time (for things like waiting 2 months for visa approval), patience (for things like having to resubmit when your visa request is denied and waiting another 2 months), and persistence (for things like continuing to persevere in the face of societally irrelevant hardships).
Even still, as a US citizen, I’ve been held up for hours at borders (including the Canadian border (!!!)) just because they couldn’t understand why I do what I do.
Note: I’ve yet to be denied entry into any country. Again, I credit this luck to my US passport.
- Myth: Digital nomads can go anywhere at any time.
- Here’s the truth: Getting around the world with an “alternative” lifestyle is not always that easy.
5. I’m living a dream life.
There’s no question that doing this is fun.
I definitely enjoy it.
I couldn’t think of anything else I would want to do at this moment in time.
But is this a dream life? Of course not.
I sleep on floors, I miss out on great adventures because I’m working, I struggle to find my Precious (internet) which threatens my livelihood, I often spend all day on a cramped bus (without my Precious), and I work so hard that it often doesn’t matter where I am in the world- all I see is my computer.
The gurus will have you believe that you can spend all day on the beach earning millions in passive income. And while there’s a little truth to some of that, that’s likely not going to happen to 99% of digital nomads out there.
And what those gurus won’t tell you is that they spent years not making any money, then they finally started making enough money to be able to travel to a beach to take a picture, and then everyone started paying them because they saw a guy on a beach saying, “YOU COULD BE HERE!!!”
And here’s something else they aren’t telling you: Every “internet guru” stares at their computer screen for 12 hours a day, regardless of where they are in the world.
- That’s not a dream; that’s real life.
Being a digital nomad requires constant hard work, just like everything else.
It’s a lot like living a life in a house. The only differences are the specific logistical hurdles.
I don’t worry about paying rent, I worry about finding the cheapest ticket to my next destination.
I don’t worry about how to pay my electric bill, I worry about passing through customs unhindered every 1-3 months.
I don’t worry about furnishing my house, I worry about finding decent internet.
There are moments where I look at others and I think about how being stationary must be so nice. I think about how having stability must feel pretty rewarding.
But I need to remind myself that I’ve chosen this path because I was unsatisfied with the “stable” path in the first place. And I need to remind myself that I’m now happier than I’ve ever been before.
It’s very easy to forget why we’re doing something when we don’t feel immediate gratification.
Us humans are terrible at gaining perspective. We’re always suffering from something I call GIGS- Grass Is Greener Syndrome. We always think that the “grass is greener” wherever we aren’t.
And I’m no exception.
When I’m having a moment of despair, it’s usually because I look on Facebook and I see someone else doing something better, more awesome, and more exciting. And I need to remind myself that their life is not better than mine.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an office worker or a digital nomad; life, in general, is never going to be “perfect”.
- Myth: Digital nomads have figured everything out.
- Here’s the truth: Life, very frequently, still sucks.
Being A Digital Nomad Is Great, But It’s Not Everything You May Think It Is
This post is not to discourage people from becoming digital nomads. As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this piece, being a digital nomad is seriously a wonderful thing.
I love it.
But it’s far from the romantic dream life most internet marketing gurus make it out to be.
It comes with its fair share of troubles and hardships, pains and frustrations.
But for those that find this kind of thing exciting, it’s a great lifestyle.
If you like exploring new places, traveling around the world, meeting new friends, and sampling new cultures, then by all means, you should try to be a digital nomad. But you should also not expect too much.
You are going to be living in busses and cafes, wondering when you can find enough internet to meet a tight deadline.
You are going to be repeatedly placed in physically and mentally uncomfortable situations which are constantly pushing your boundaries.
And you are still going to have to work really, really hard.
Accept that the lifestyle might not be as glamorous as you think.
But if you are OK with that and can understand that being a digital nomad comes with some serious drawbacks, get yourself ready for an amazing adventure.
As I’ve mentioned in my other digital nomad articles, the only thing you need to get started is some faith that it will all work out.
So have faith, go find yourself a digital nomad job, then get up, and go!
The world is waiting…
Are you a digital nomad? What are some common myths that you run up against when you tell people what you do? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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