The Life of a Digital Nomad

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I’ve been working as a freelance web developer for about two months now. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and it’s been a  hell of a ride.

In an attempt to make sense of it all, I humbly present to you everything I’ve learned in the last 9 weeks about four of the biggest aspects of being a digital nomad.

The Freedom

Ahh, yes. Freedom. ‘Tis a glorious thing. The freedom to work when you want. The freedom to work where you want. The freedom to make Skype calls and talk business whilst drinking Pina Coladas dressed in nothing but your underwear (but for the love of God, DON’T HIT THE VIDEO BUTTON).

The freedom to spend many days building a website that talks in painful detail about your love of aardvarks because you’re the great grandaddy of your business and it’s a niche with a LOT of traffic and if you say it could be a gold mine then you’re going to take that risk cause, dammit, you’re the BOSS.

The freedom to say ‘screw this, I’m going home’ at 10:30 in the morning and then spend the rest of the day riding horses at full tilt around the countryside of Argentina before hitting up an authentic Gaucho bar complete with cowboys in berets and cheap red wine (£1 for half a litre!).

The freedom to work a 10 hour day, every day for two weeks straight. The freedom to worry about how much work you have on. The freedom to worry about how little work you have on. The freedom to worry constantly about where your next job is coming from and how you’re going to be able to afford to live 6 months from now.

The freedom to deal with complaints, handle queries, research keywords, design websites, program themes, market services, chase invoices, fill in tax returns, file receipts and track expenses.

The freedom to placate partners with promises that it won’t always be like this, that the job’s nearly finished and that we can enjoy this foreign city that we’ve travelled 6,000 miles to see NEXT weekend.

The Office

Picture this: You’re at your desk. The temperature is around 30 degrees celsius. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky but that’s OK because your desk is located outside under the comfortable shade of a beautiful dark wood veranda.

You hear tropical birds singing in the jungle behind you and you feel the cooling sea breeze stroke your face from off the beach in front of you. You reach over and take a sip of a refreshing fruit cocktail before returning to your work, relaxed and unhurried.

Now picture this: You’re sitting up on an uncomfortable bed in a dingy hotel room balancing a laptop precariously on your lap. Outside, it sounds like a nefarious deity is trying to flatten the city with rain alone, which would be fine if he would just turn down the heat while he did it.

The deadline is minutes away and you’re desperately trying to upload an entire website on a whisper of a dial up WiFi connection that is entirely dependent on the direction that the wind is blowing. You look up to see the largest cockroach entomology has ever seen climbing up the wall and, for a split second, you imagine how much easier your life would be if you were a bug.

The Work

For eleven of the twelve years I did web design, I never got paid for it. I did it because it allowed me to combine my love of drawing with my love of a good challenge. It was all about the love.

Now people are paying me to do it. People come up to me and they say ‘Simon, we want a website done. We like the other websites you’ve done and we want you to do one for us. We’ll give you ten million dollars to do it.’

Maybe that’s not exactly what they say, but it’s close. It’s incredible and I am entirely and forever grateful to them for the opportunity to get paid to do something I really enjoy.

But for the love of all things good and wholesome why do they want a rainbow-coloured unicorn dancing across half the page while singing Lady GaGa’s ‘Bad Romance’ on a page about bicycle rental?

Seriously now. I know it’s their money. I know I said I’d implement their amends. But please, please, please don’t make me sign my name to this.

The Clients

Clients are amazing. Clients teach you how to be diplomatic and understanding. They force you to confront awkward situations head on and to resolve them maturely and with empathy.

They challenge you to push your skills in new directions and deliver more in less time than you ever thought was possible. They challenge you to make your good into your best.

They test your patience by taking weeks to send over files then blaming you when the launch is 20 minutes late. They insult your integrity by assuming you are trying to rip them off at every turn when the reality is that your current hourly rate for their job has just slipped below minimum wage. Pre tax.

They frustrate you with ridiculous requests that take days to implement despite your warnings that the technology can’t handle it, only to change their minds and revert back to the original whilst suggesting that you advised them badly and that you lacked the chops to make it work.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth all of this? Is it worth the emotional strain of mountain-peak highs and deep-ocean-trench lows? Is it worth the risk that you might not eat next month just so that you can move to a new country every few months? Is working outside next to a beach really that great? I mean it’s only sand and water.

Good grief yes.

Every beautiful, infuriating, life-affirming, awkward, stressful, overwhelming, rewarding second of it. I have never in my entire life felt so much personal growth. I have never felt so in control of my own destiny. I have never felt so engaged in the work I do, so direct is the connection between effort and reward.

And that, my friends, is entirely priceless.

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61 Comments

  1. Hey Icon,

    Thank you for responding. I took your advice so now i decided to use ‘nomadic trader’ on my business card and my first blog. You’re one of the few people that inspire me because i look up to you. I just learned how to do the blog today and i tried to publish one. Would you mind checking it and please….
    http://travelbroadcast.wordpress.com/.

    More power to all of us…..

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  2. hi there, i have been living in the world of nomadism which i have no idea that this world actually exist. I always thought i was the only one doing it. I travel a lot while i do all my marketing works on line for companies back home. I have earned from several projects and enjoy life while going to places. I have been to 22 countries already and i am only 32 yrs old,single.I have done several traditional businesses of my own but nothing really beats having the time and the freedom to do things your way….
    Should i start calling myself a digital nomad or a trader nomad?
    I have started working on my portfolio slowly through the morning forex and now i am in the verge of creating a website wherein people from all walks of life can unite sharing their travel experiences for free. I wanted to make my own business card that says i am a trader nomad or digital nomad and help young people like me to enjoy time and freedom while earning. I need your worthy advice. thanks

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  3. Great post. You seen to have captured the highs and lows of your job wonderfully. 11 years is a long time not to be paid though!

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    • Tell me about it. My own stupid fault, though. Once I started asking people if they’d pay me to do it they were all, “Yeah, sure. Why didn’t you ask earlier?”

      /facepalm

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  4. I’ve been working for myself for 7 years now and I can’t imagine going back to a regular office job! I don’t have quite the view here in Texas that you do, but the cockroaches are large and sometimes fly. ;)

    Glad to hear you are pushing back on clients with the billing. I find people value you more the more you cost, and certainly, some clients will try to get away with whatever they can. IME, setting clear rules and enforcing your limits strictly but fairly helps a lot. Also, if you charge more, you can afford to get rid of the annoying clients who suck up most of your time. Good luck!

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    • They fly?! That’s…that’s so wrong!

      I have found exactly the same. Not only do clients respect you more, but you also no longer have to work for minimum wage! Hurrah!

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  5. I cannot agree more with you! I am a freelance writer for various companies and while it gives me the freedom to be wherever I want to be, it leaves me at the mercy of poor WiFi connections and drained batteries!

    Oh but I will not trade this life for anything else… no power suits, no 200-floor buildings, no business meetings, no make up!

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  6. Ah this particular post totally speaks to my soul Simon and it is inspiring to see you take your work with you as you travel worldwide! Hope you are both doing well. Warm regards from Cape Town, Agnes

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  7. Wow, great read, and such a beautiful site. Just came here through Earl’s tweet, and you manage to capture the true essence of being a digital nomad. Thanks for that!

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  8. I want to be a digital nomad! I’m barely beginning however, so this is going to take time to build up. Will you be sharing more nitty gritty tidbits about how this works for you in terms of the practical business aspects? You alluded to it in the comments when you said you’re a UK-based company doing business with other UK-based companies. Does this mean you’re legally registered/licensed/etc as a business in the UK with a UK address even though you’re technically abroad?

    And thanks for the inspiration!

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    • Good luck with your journey to becoming a digital nomad! We just dove in at the deep end and are figuring it out as we go. To be honest we are still confused about the legal business aspects. Simon is registered as self employed in the UK and most of his clients at based there. We use a family member’s address. We need to work out if this is the best way though, and we will share anything that we find out.

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      • Thanks Erin! I just had a well-meaning friend advise me that being a digital nomad is pretty much impossible so to stick with the business aspect or the travel aspect only. So it’s lovely to have people like you guys sharing your experience so people like me can go “Well too bad. Other people have done it and I most certainly can as well!” It’s worth trying at least!

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        • Don’t listen to the naysayers! There are SO many people doing it now that there is no reason not to give it a try. Good luck and keep us posted!

  9. I’m glad to read about your experience. Being a freelance proofreader (in French, so my English may not be too good!), I have often considered working while traveling and it seems like, even though it can be hard and frustrating, it’s totally possible, and worth the inconvenience. Time management is what scares me the most – tell us more about it when you find the best schedule!

    Reply ↓

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