Last year I blogged about digital nomads, wondering why more fiction writers don’t take up the call of the road. After a year bopping back and forth between Asia and the U.S., I want to update my thoughts and give you a peek into the reality of my life as a digital nomad.
In the abstract, ditching the 9-5 to travel and write full-time sounds like living the dream. Beaches! Exotic locations! So much inspiration all around! There’s a whole niche of travel bloggers trying to sell this dream, and they’re funding themselves by getting other people to buy in.
Here’s the real deal about the beaches and inspiration bit: 1) I hate sand. 2) Nothing is exotic. I feel more at home in Taipei than I do in Texas. And 3) Inspiration is great for a first chapter, but it doesn’t get a whole book finished.
I’m always posting my desks on Instagram. I get to write at some of the coolest cafes around Asia, but I’m guessing your corner Starbucks has a selection of equally flat and lovely tables to work at.
The life I’ve chosen has tons of advantages–low cost of living, no cooking when street food is cheaper, and a level of cultural immersion that keeps my brain churning–BUT there are a few massive downsides.
1. Distractions. Today I should be writing, but I’m blogging and then I’m going to go to the Sunday market, because I want fried coconut puffs more than I want to sit down and work. Tomorrow I’m planning to write, but instead I could book a spa day for cost of a dinner at home. I could also play with elephants on the spur of the moment if I felt like it. That level of freedom is both exciting and dangerous.
2. Distance. I’ve talked about feeling distant from friends and family before, but being on a different timezone than everyone I’m working with makes accountability a big challenge. The twelve hour time gap puts me out of sync, and it’s real easy to let things slide. REAL EASY.
3. Self-discipline. Adding points 1 & 2, self-discipline becomes essential to being a successful digital nomad, and it’s something I struggle with daily. When I have a raft of distractions and everyone who could call me to task is sleeping… It’s not that I don’t want to write. It’s just that writing is a mental challenge, and there are so many things my instant gratification monkey would rather do instead.
Since last year, I’ve met a few fiction writers living in and traveling through Chiang Mai. Inevitably, they have a certain level of drive. They can shift aside the distractions and buckle down on whatever project is due. They’ve also built a foundation before booking plane tickets–either establishing a pool of freelance clients, or locking down another revenue stream. I also know of people who hit the road with no backup plan or set income. Those types tend to want the digital nomad lifestyle more than they want a specific career.
That seems absolutely bonkers to me. There’s something to be said for the digital nomad experience if that’s what calls to you, but if you embark on the travel adventure of your dreams without a goal in mind… Temples and Pad Thai get boring eventually. Ask the locals. Or ask yourself–how often do you do touristy things or adventure around your home town? Once the wonder wears off, you find yourself in a routine, and if you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning, friends and home and familiarity may start to seem more compelling than musty hostels and a sea of interchangeable backpacker buddies.
I think my life is very much a ‘grass is greener’ situation. It sounds sublime that I get to travel and write and nothing else, and so many things about this lifestyle keep my engines purring, but it’s not all peaches and champagne. I have to book a trip for May and I’m dreading making the reservations. Can you imagine? I can go wherever I want, and I still don’t want to book because every trip means time lost in travel, sucky layovers, and an escalation of the mental battle between productivity and distraction. I’m not so jaded that I won’t have fun on that trip, but if I went back in time five years, I’d think the current me was crazy.
Yes, I can make you jealous with my pictures and spa days, but ultimately, this lifestyle involves sacrifices. I’m missing reunions and the baby showers and weddings of dear friends. I haven’t seen most of my extended family in years. This life was my choice and I’m not complaining, because I could go home this week if I really wanted, but it’s important to remember that living the dream means living A dream–not necessarily all the dreams at once. It’s also more work than the Instagrams would lead you to believe.
If you think being a digital nomad and working on your masterpiece novel (or your startup or budding freelance whatever career) sounds amazing, then all power to you, and please come have a Thai tea with me in Chiang Mai. Maybe this lifestyle sounds like a nightmare. Or maybe you’d love to try a few months abroad, but just can’t or are too afraid to get started. Fear not. The pages aren’t any easier to write on the other side of the ocean. Whether you’re sitting at your dining room table or at a hipster cafe in Seoul, the words don’t come any faster. Your problems definitely won’t disappear on the road, and as romantic as visiting Angkor Wat sounds, I’m guessing your fantasies of Cambodia don’t factor in a hoard of tourists poking you with selfie sticks. Not as glamorous as advertised.
That’s the reality of my life as a digital nomad. Join me or don’t! Just remember that life doesn’t improve on a curve proportional to the number of stamps in your passport. It’s all about the drive and dedication you bring to your work–whatever and wherever that is.
Now about those coconut puffs… ; )