This is the unvarnished truth about what it takes to become a digital nomad

This is the unvarnished truth about what it takes to become a digital nomad

When the COVID-19 pandemic lightens and borders reopen, more people who have tasted remote work may ask themselves how far they might take it. Our research on digital nomads — extreme remote workers who leave their homes, cities and most of their possessions behind to lead what they call “location independent” lives — sheds light on what it takes to make it while busting some common myths.

Although media stories often depict digital nomads as wealthy, few of those we met or interviewed in Bali, Indonesia, one of the world’s foremost digital nomad communities, fit this pattern.

Much more commonly, we observed digital nomads hard at work, freelancing to pay the bills while attempting to start businesses that they feel passionate about. The small share of trust funders and retired executives aside, the people we met mainly had left jobs working long hours in expensive cities and putting aside little savings. While not entirely broke, almost all digital nomads we met needed to work regularly to survive.

The truth about what it takes? Bring work. Whether they were taking a full-time job on the road or a part-time freelance project, those who left home with some paid work in hand adjusted much more easily to their new lives as digital nomads.

For those making a new start, top digital nomad destinations like Bali and Chiang Mai, Thailand, have far lower costs of living compared to Australia, the U.S., and western Europe, and even a few small gigs paid in Western currency can make a world of difference in reducing anxieties about earning enough to get by. We met many nomads in Bali living what they deemed to be comfortable lives on the equivalent of about $12,000 to $18,000 a year.

Myth No. 2: Digital nomads couldn’t cut it in the ‘real world’

Most of the digital nomads we interviewed were succeeding at work — at least on the standards of their employers. We were struck by how many digital nomads had employers who made efforts to retain them as they prepared to leave. Carol, a 37-year-old Australian employee of a tech startup, was shocked that after she told her boss she was quitting to travel and work online, he said: “We don’t want you to leave… just log on and work wherever you are.”

Carol (all names are pseudonyms, in keeping with research protocols) kept a job she enjoyed and got the lifestyle she hoped for.

Realizing that their work lives were not improving even as they paid more and more “dues” in supposedly fulfilling roles, digital nomads left their office jobs and took control of their destiny.

As Norman, a 37-year-old digital nomad and freelance marketer from western Europe, put it, “Companies like Google that are trying to please Generation Y and others just think that they can put a Ping-Pong table in the hall, and people will be happy there. No.”

What does it take to get this treatment? In a word, skills.
Nomads with strong professional skills and knowledge of how to apply them
remotely fared best. The average digital nomad we met was in their early 30s, with
about eight years of professional work experience.

Myth No. 3: Digital nomads never work more than four hours a week

Tim Ferriss’s best-selling bible for digital nomads, somewhat misleadingly titled “The 4-Hour Workweek,” led many to equate the phenomenon to a life of pure leisure. In contrast, we frequently observed digital nomads working as many or more hours than in their former lives in order to successfully reinvent themselves as freelancers and entrepreneurs.

As Brandi, a 32-year-old digital nomad from the U.S., told us: “I don’t want to work four hours. I like what I do, and I want to do it. I’m happy to work. I’m not trying to get away from work.”

Although many do not count it as work, digital nomads also spend significant time networking, building skills, and working on professional development endeavors. The concentration of digital nomads in technology, marketing, e-commerce and coaching professions, broadly defined, helps them to easily make sense of what others are doing and to learn from one another’s strategies.

MarketWatch photo illustration/Oxford University Press|, Carmon Rinehart

Myth No. 4: Digital nomads are always on the move (or in the pool)

Traveling is a major draw to being a digital nomad, and nomads fill their social media feeds with “office of the day” photos from the beach, pool, or rice field. But the truth is that successful nomads often find they are more productive when based in one location.

Ed, an experienced American digital nomad living in Chiang Mai, says that “honestly, you can live out of a backpack for a while and post these pictures of the ‘office of the day.’ But nobody I’ve ever met is as productive when they’re moving around all the time as when they’re not. And I think they’re lying if they say they are.”

We did meet a few digital nomads dedicated to long periods of very aggressive travel schedules, but many more preferred to think of themselves as “location independent” — ready to travel anytime, but also conscious of the fact that they might get more of the benefits of their freedom from particular locations by staying longer in a place of their choice.

We found that digital nomads often stayed in Bali for the full length of their two-month visit visas, left for periods of travel ranging from a day to a few weeks, then returned with new visa clocks to Bali’s famously supportive digital nomad community.

Longer term, digital nomads often seem to find one or a few communities of fellow nomads from which to base their travels.

Rachael A. Woldoff, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W. Va., and Robert C. Litchfield, an associate professor of economics and business at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., are the authors of “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy.”


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