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 (4 pingbacks)

  1. Thanks for sharing both the positives and the negatives! It’s hard for people like me who are trying to work towards a location independent lifestyle to even believe that there are negatives, but definitely happy to hear the good stuff outweighs the bad! although a monster cockroach might sway be heavily in the negative direction! :o)

    Reply

    • There are definitely negatives but yes, the highs do outweigh the lows and the freedom is an amazing feeling. Good luck on your journey to location independence.

      Reply

  2. Hi Simon,

    Cheers for the post, it’s great and exactly what I’ve started doing over the past few months – in Southeast Asia at the moment, Malaysia to be more specific. It’s super exciting, challenging, etc – everything you’re describing.

    Giving it’s starting to work, I’m also starting to work out what I need to take care of on finance / accounting / taxes fronts, and I don’t know anyone personally doing the same, I’m technically ‘based’ in the UK, so I’m starting to get in touch with a few other of the digital nomads / laptop hobos ;)

    Cheers

    Reply

    • Taxes is such a complicated issue and we are still not quite sure what the right thing is. Currently we are registered as self employed in the UK and pay tax there, as we aren’t resident anywhere else to pay tax. It’s just easier this way, but maybe if we start making a lot more money we’ll get some proper advice. Good luck with it all and let us know if you have any questions.

      Reply

  3. Great stuff Simon, thank you for sharing your experience! After building my business this way for the last 4 years and meeting hundreds of like-minded folks through my travels and online, it’s exciting to be part of this societal shift by building an online community to encourage more folks to embrace location independent business! My biggest wish is that in the coming years, more and more people will be able to have this sort of flexibility and control over their work lives! I’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly 3 years, loving life, and my next destination is Central & South America hopefully later this year, so this gets me excited! :)

    Reply

  4. Man, your posts made me laugh as this has been my life for roughly 8 months now..

    Income may be inconsistent depending on the work assigned, but man, I am very happy I made the move to full-time freelancing.

    No Manager to argue with, no work schedule, no SHIT cause I’m the BOSS ^_^

    Reply

  5. Simon,

    Thanks for that, I will look into it in more detail and see you when the money rolls in.Haha!

    I am going to post around other sites/blogs and see if anybody has any other issues I can possibly address, but please update me when you come across any more problems that I may be able to overcome through a new design.

    All the best!

    Reply

  6. Hi all,

    I am currently studying in my 3rd year of a Design degree in Leeds, England and looking to to base my final project around the digital nomad lifestyle. By the end of the project i aim to produce a new product/piece of furniture/accessory to aid a digital nomad. Can anybody help with with my research by identifying what some of the most useful pieces of equipment and why, and more importantly if there is anything that does not work well/could be improved or even invented! The sort of thing when you say “if only I had that” or “that would be useful” !!!

    Any information would be much appreciated, or if you can’t help do you know anybody that could aid me in my research. Thank you.

    Reply

    • YES!

      I was on the bus reading my Kindle this very day and suddenly we found ourselves in a really long tunnel where I was no longer able to see the screen. Fortunately, i had my iPod Touch with me so I whipped it out (and then got out my iPod Touch) and held it over the kindle.

      It provided enough light, but it was awkward to hold both and continue reading so I turned to Erin and I said:

      “You know what would be awesome? Some sort of clip that could attach to the top of the Kindle and hold my iPod Touch/iPhone so that it lit up the screen without me having to hold it.”

      This, my friend, is fate. I have the problem on the same day you ask about products to help digital nomads. Get it made! It’ll make you rich, guaranteed*!

      If it does, this idea is ©Simon Fairbairn 2010. I’ll license the rights to you to get it done, but I want my percentage (say, 15%) when it goes global. This is going to be huge, stranger who I’ve never met before!

      *It may or may not make you rich. It should get you at least a 2:1, though.

      Reply

      • Simon,

        Thanks for that, I will have a look into that idea further.I am going to post around different sites/blogs to see what responses I can get to possibly turn into a design.

        When you next come across a problem please let me know and I will see what I can do.

        All the best

        Reply

  7. Hola amigos saludos y éxitos en 2011, muchas felicidades y que se encuentren bien muy lindas sus fotos y comentarios de sus aventuras por Américam, un abrazo y los esperamos por Hotel Rural San Ignacio Country misiones Paraguay con afecto Gustavo Jhave,

    Reply

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