Once you take away the hype, what is it REALLY like to be location-independent?
I recently read a prediction that 40% of all Americans will be digital nomads by 2020. Whether this comes to pass or not, there’s no doubt that a more mobile working lifestyle is increasingly popular. There are plenty of people running businesses from laptops all over the planet, embracing the philosophy of ‘having less and doing more’.
I am one of those people. I’ve been running a successful business as a freelance copywriter for several years. I write articles, landing pages, product descriptions, website marketing copy, eBooks, lead-generating emails, video narration and a whole lot more for clients. I currently spend about a third of each year travelling on the proceeds. Sometimes I work while I explore and sometimes I leave the laptop at home. When I buckle down and get to work, I can make good money – I went from zero clients to about $7000 a month within my first 6 months of freelancing.
Last year was my most lucrative ever as a writer, but I still managed to fit in several overseas adventures: photographing wildlife in Bolivia, driving all over Tasmania, playing digital nomad in Argentina for 5 weeks, snorkeling with manta rays on the Great Barrier Reef and traipsing all over Portugal, Spain and Italy.
Though I have a base in Brisbane, Australia, I’m now in a position where I can travel whenever I want, to wherever I want, for as long as I want. It’s just a matter of juggling the work and splicing the travel in between (or during).
So, you would think I would be the last person to say anything negative about the digital nomad lifestyle, wouldn’t you? After all, as The Jet-setting Copywriter, it has been very good to me.
Let me be clear – I love the life I’ve created for myself. I love the freedom. I love the satisfaction of doing a good job for quality clients. I love the autonomy. And I love that freelance writing more than pays for my rather expensive hobby: exploring the world’s remotest rivers.
But the dream of becoming a digital nomad (or ‘location-independent entrepreneur’ if you prefer – I explain the difference here) and the reality are two different things. For those contemplating leaving their cubicle jobs behind and moving to Vietnam, Prague or Morocco to try travel blogging, affiliate marketing, drop-shipping or teaching English or yoga, please beware – there is a lot of dreamy BS out there about what it’s really like.
So let’s enter the hype-free zone for a moment. Here are some hard truths about location independence that the ‘please join my mailing list’ travel bloggers don’t tell you:
Financially, the vast majority of digital nomads are barely scraping by
Wonder how much money digital nomads make as they travel the world? For most, the answer is ‘not much’. The most popular destinations for DNs are the cheapest ones: Thailand, Philippines, India, Bali, Morocco, Bolivia, Romania, etc. You don’t hear about too many nomads hanging out in Norway, Denmark, Monaco, the Bahamas or Luxembourg, do you? That’s because very few can afford it.
For a while, I followed a popular travel blog written by a British couple who decided to quit their normal jobs back home to sample the global lifestyle. From their adventures, it seemed like they were living the dream, flitting from country to country, enjoying great experiences and fitting in work when they could. Recently, in one of their posts, they proudly proclaimed that after several years of doing this, they had finally broken even financially! I was shocked. I had thought they were rolling in money. But this is probably the biggest misconception about this lifestyle – that it pays well. Sometimes it can but for most people it doesn’t. A consistent, reliable income tends to be the exception, not the rule.
Read any digital nomad forum and you’ll see innumerable questions about couch-surfing, dumpster-diving for meals, hitch-hiking in dubious places because there’s no money for a bus, etc. Many of the money-scraping activities performed by DNs (online marketing, blogging, etc.) can take a long time to become profitable – if they ever do. The pattern of (a) saving up some money, (b) going overseas to become a digital nomad and (c) giving up and returning home after a few months when the money runs out is quite common. This lifestyle celebrates its successes but buries its many disappointments and failures under the carpet. You just don’t hear about them.
The biggest expense for wandering workers is accommodation, and while there are ways to get around this (house-sitting, caretaking, etc.), it’s still a big challenge, wherever in the world you happen to end up. To be productive, you also need reliable Wi-Fi and a comfortable work environment. It can be much harder to find these things than you might think.
The assumption that most digital nomads are ‘location-independent’ simply isn’t true. Many make so little money that their journeys are confined to super-cheap destinations only. Their self-professed ‘freedom’ isn’t really freedom at all – it’s chronically hampered by a perpetual shortage of funds. True location independence means being able to travel and work wherever you like, with cost being only one consideration – not the overriding one.
Being a digital nomad isn’t terribly unique any more
15 years ago, this roam-the-planet-while-you-work lifestyle was new and exciting. Now it’s becoming mainstream. If you have a skill that’s portable, a desire to see the world and enough clients/sales to keep you in funds, you can do it too. I’ve even seen websites that advise on how to combine online money-making with global kite-surfing! There are so many different ways to be location independent these days that the term digital nomad has become woefully inadequate to describe all the possibilities. But just because technology has made this life more accessible, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many digital nomads find they actually work much harder ‘on the road’ than they ever did at home.
I may ruffle a few feathers by saying this, but being a digital nomad isn’t all that adventurous anymore. Half the world’s DNs seem to pouring into Chiang Mai, Thailand because it’s the safe option and everyone else is going there (plus, you can get a street-food dinner for two bucks). Everyone wants ‘a quiet beach town with reliable Wi-Fi’ so all those places don’t stay quiet for long, inundated with laptop-toting Web marketers, life coaches, business gurus and desperate travel bloggers. While the image of location independent entrepreneurs is one of intrepid adventure, the reality is that many DNs are insecure and afraid to break away from the pack and go it alone in new places that don’t have a support network of ‘people like them’.
While I consider sharing antelope stew with pygmies in Gabon fairly adventurous, I don’t think sitting in an overseas apartment churning out articles is quite so fascinating. It’s just work done in a different place. Sure, it’s wonderful to be able to turn off the computer, walk outside and find myself in Carvoeira, Portugal or Milan, Italy, but the writing-for-a-living part is pretty much the same wherever I am.
You can’t really work ‘anywhere’
Some of the prettiest and most pleasant places on earth (to visit or to live long-term) don’t have reliable Wi-Fi. In some overseas accommodation, privacy, a comfortable bed, quiet surrounds and a decent table and chair to work from are nowhere to be found.
An overseas work location has to meet some basic requirements: adequate Internet, dependable electricity, personal safety, access to ATMs, shops and other essential needs, etc. One of the reasons nomad co-working spaces are sprouting up all over the world is because it can be so hard to find accommodation that’s conducive to productive and distraction-free work.
Some nomads pay to use these co-working spaces. Others visit local cafes with free Wi-Fi, hoping they can minimise their food and beverage purchases, find a quiet corner and tap away on the laptop surrounded by all the bustle. I’ve never written in a cafe or a co-working space – I find I get my best work done in solitude from the comfort of an AirBnB apartment, preferably on a high floor above the traffic sounds. My normal procedure is to decide on a promising-looking city, organise a stay of at least a month and then combine writing with sightseeing while I’m there. Sometimes I’ll earn more money from the work than the entire cost of the trip, airfares included.
Even in some major foreign cities where you might expect to find reliable wireless, you can’t. There’s a good reason remote workers are obsessed with the Internet – without it, their ability to keep travelling and meet tight deadlines goes out the window. If your business involves live streaming, large video files or other extra challenges, a good connection becomes even more important.
Travelling and making money are often mutually incompatible
When I’m exploring pristine river systems, I’m not writing. When I’m writing, I’m too busy to go exploring. Sometimes, I can juggle globe-trotting and serious copywriting, but often I have to do one or the other – not try to do both at the same time.
I know from my own experience that when I’m making a lot of money writing for clients, I’m seeing less of the sights than I want to. And when I’m having an amazing adventure, I’m usually not getting much writing done. The key to my lifestyle is targeting the right types of clients. I don’t use bidding sites, content mills or writing-as-a-commodity job boards because they don’t pay enough to fund what I do. Quality, long-term clients are the key to my sustainability.
Building meaningful relationships while globe-trotting can be tricky
I’m probably marginally antisocial (I prefer the term ‘self-contained’), which works out quite well for someone who writes for a living and ventures alone into isolated wilderness areas for weeks at a time. But the human animal is sociable by nature and being a digital nomad can put a serious damper on your interaction with others. Yes, you get to meet some amazing people in foreign lands. But you also spend a lot of time saying goodbye to them when you have to rush off to the next country on your list.
A feeling of social isolation is a common complaint among digital nomads – and it gets worse when there’s a language barrier involved. Culture shock can be a real issue that affects your ability to live and work abroad. Many aspects of life overseas can be incredibly frustrating when there’s the added pressure of trying to make a living as you go.
Very few real-life digital nomads do the ‘laptop-at-the-beach’ thing
I hate to burst this bubble, but you know those photos of smiling digital nomads reclining in a hammock with their laptop at the beach? They’re a fantasy. They’re a photo shoot. I can guarantee you that once that idyllic photo is taken, they’re rushing back to the comfort of their air-conditioned digs to do the real work. Only a numbskull brings a laptop to a beach.
The glare from the sun makes reading the screen difficult or impossible. Sand can get blown into your keyboard. Tropical drinks spill all over everything. Salt-laden air wreaks havoc on electronic gear. You can drop your laptop in the sand. It’s also rare that you’ll find a comfortable bench to write from, which means you’ll be ruining your neck and/or back trying to write from a hammock, or with your computer propped up on your thighs and your spine grinding against the base of a palm tree. Spoiler alert: coconuts can kill you if they fall on your head. There’s also the matter of safety – there’s no better invitation for snatch-and-grab thieves than a person at an isolated beach with an expensive laptop and/or mobile sitting in front of them.
I swim, snorkel, stroll and rock-hop at beaches. I don’t try to write at them.
Sometimes you get tired of moving around all the time
You know that great feeling when you come home from a holiday and get to sleep in your own bed, use your own shower, buy your favourite goodies from the local shops or catch up with all the familiar faces? With a location-independent lifestyle, you lose that. Your home is wherever you happen to be, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s not glamorous: I once spent the better part of an afternoon unblocking a seriously clogged toilet in an apartment in South America.
The freedom that comes with location-independent living comes at a cost. You’ll miss your friends and family. You’ll miss many of the routines of home. Because visas eventually run out, you have to keep moving from country to country, whether you want to or not. For some people, all that uprooting and blur of motion can take its toll and make them wonder where all the promised ‘freedom’ is.
Yes, it’s definitely possible to make a good living doing something you love while gallivanting around the planet. I’m living proof of that, and I’m not alone. But it’s not all sipping tropical drinks and watching the money roll in. It’s hard work mixed in with plenty of unexpected challenges – and not everyone is cut out for it (or wants to be). In my experience, the most successful digital nomads are those who plan well ahead and have their clients and business structure firmly in place long before they even think about buying a plane ticket to Lisbon, Santiago or Bangkok.
The four-hour work week is a terrific book title and a tantalizing goal, but I have yet to meet anyone who is living it.
Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.