As a digital nomad I’m free to work here, there, anywhere
A growing number of people are upping sticks without giving up their career. Amy Molloy, who has roamed across South America, explains how it is done
IS REAL freedom having no responsibilities — waking every morning with no commitments, with no one asking anything of you or expecting anything of you? That is the question I had to ask myself earlier this year when my partner, Kurt, found out that he had worked for his company long enough to take “long service leave” — four months off at half pay — and floated the idea that we spend it backpacking across South America.
From a professional standpoint it was possible for both of us. As a freelance writer from Sydney, I can take as much or as little time off as I want to. But did I want to? It has been nearly 10 years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love inspired women to leave their unfulfilling jobs (and unfulfilling marriages) to flee to foreign lands and “find themselves”. Is it time we updated our concept of escapism to include commitment and purpose?
For millennials like me whose identities are tied up with their job descriptions, is it really liberating to leave it all behind us? I craved adventure but I didn’t want to sacrifice my ambition (or sap my savings). That’s why I decided to become a “digital nomad”. Instead of running away from my responsibilities, I wanted to run away with them.
Digital nomads are individuals who “leverage technology to perform their work duties and conduct their lifestyle in a nomadic manner”, according to Forbes magazine.
On a local level, digital nomads are the people you see every morning in a cafe tapping away on their keyboards. At the extreme end of the spectrum they are freelancers, business owners and consultants who travel the world while holding down their day jobs.
On our trip, which started in Chile and ended in Los Angeles, crossing 14 countries, I met digital nomads working across a range of industries (app and graphic designers, teachers, personal assistants, entrepreneurs and bloggers).
The virtual community is also growing. On Instagram there are more than 54,500 images with the hashtag #digitalnomad. (“Here’s me and my laptop looking out over a beach/jungle/sunset.”)
The online forum Reddit has a board dedicated to digital nomads where more than 16,000 members share tips on how to work around the world. (“Can anyone suggest nomad destinations for a family?” and “How can I remotely test internet speed before arriving somewhere?”)
The first digital nomad conference was held in Berlin this summer and in 2016 the first co-working space on a catamaran, the Coboat, will be launched. “Collaborate, innovate and create with fellow Coboaters aboard one of the most inspirational co-working environments in the world,” says the Coboat website.
Perhaps you’re beginning to see the appeal. Before you book your plane ticket, however, and say “bon voyage” to your boss, do a reality check. Like any new trend the digital nomad fad is easy to glorify. During our four-month trip I worked from “pecky-pecky” (that’s the noise they make) boats floating down the Amazon, from the top of Chilean volcanoes and from a tent in Peruvian sacred valleys.
Molloy: ‘I craved adventure but I didn’t want to sacrifice my ambition’
I discovered personal tricks to help me stay connected. For example, always ask for the hostel room nearest reception as that is where they keep the router. I learnt to work entirely from an iPad so I didn’t have to carry a laptop (this is possible thanks to Microsoft’s Word app and a Bluetooth keyboard).It’s important to be realistic. Have you ever come back from a holiday feeling more tired than when you left from constant movement, new situations, mysterious food and upset stomachs? Then add the stress of work pressure. While Kurt slept his way through turbulent flights and airport delays, I downed terrible coffee and forced my way through word counts.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I had to lower my professional standards. I took a week to reply to emails and missed deadlines due to unforeseen circumstances — for example, when the kitchen roof of an Ecuadorean hostel collapsed over my iPad during a rainstorm.
Yet the unconventional challenges were matched by magical moments. When I got writer’s block in the Amazon I climbed to the top of the tallest tree canopy. When I missed an amazing work opportunity because I couldn’t check my emails, I de-stressed by swimming with giant tortoises off the Galapagos Islands.
I also wrote a book, Diary of a Digital Nomad, which became a mixture of memoir and how-to guide. I felt it was important to reveal what this way of working actually entails so that people can decide if it really is for them.
Beth Altringer is a Harvard professor who is heading research into the digital nomad lifestyle and its implications for “retirement, social life and long-term family plans”. In my case it is too early to know yet if a digital nomad lifestyle is really sustainable or if it is only a short-term fix to freedom.
I don’t think I could continue to work and travel at the pace we did during those four months: we didn’t stay in one place longer than three days. That said, I’ve never felt more inspired or creative, even if I wasn’t always a star employee.
I’ve since discovered that there’s a subculture of “slow-travelling digital nomads” who believe freedom isn’t about how far or fast you travel. It can mean exploring your own country, city or anywhere more visually stimulating than your office. The best bit? You never get post-holiday, back-to-work blues because you never really left work — it just comes with you.
■ If you’re staying at a hostel that offers free breakfast, don’t expect to get wi-fi once it’s served, so set your alarm early.
■ Keep your iPad or laptop in a “dry bag”.
■ Practise the art of non-attachment. There is a reasonable chance that some of your possessions will go “missing”.
■ Back up everything to the cloud.
■ Schedule social media posts to give the illusion that you’re “on” even when you’re out of range.
■ There will always be one guy sitting in a hostel’s communal area streaming a movie while you’re struggling to update your inbox. Don’t be that guy!
■ Submerge yourself in water at every opportunity. It will make everything feel better.
■ Take screen grabs of every piece of essential information — maps, visa applications and flight details.
■ Move to a new destination when you want. And give yourself permission to go home — but sleep on it first.