My personal/professional situation is a thing. It’s a situation that many people find themselves in. Perhaps it’s common enough to even be a phenomenon. It’s called being a digital nomad.
When I finished my undergrad degree, it was really hard to find paying, relevant jobs while I completed my Masters part-time. Sure, as an aspiring writer I could be an unpaid intern at a publication, but it was hard to see the point of doing so much busywork for free when, if I applied a little initiative, I could be paid real human money for doing interesting work. So I created my own job. I registered as a business and I emailed publications about ideas I had and some of those publications said (more or less), ‘Yes! We’d love to give you money for words!’
A lot of the pieces I wrote were very location-specific. I wrote about local events, state and national politics, and stuff I saw around me. Increasingly though, I diversified, wrote about things that could interest people worldwide and for publications in countries on the other side of the world. When I moved abroad, my work became even less tethered to the spaces I actually inhabited. In the last year, while living in the UK, I’ve written about gluten free flour in Kenya, youth engagement programs in Haiti, global challenges relating to HIV, the European Union’s robotic workforce policy, the Australian Prime Minister’s five-dollar donation to a homeless man, a Scandinavian teen TV show, and so on. The nature of the work is likewise distant – I’ve worked with dozens of editors and have actually met about three of them.
A digital nomad is a person who conducts their work remotely. They can be anywhere in the world (as long as it has an internet connection) and do their job. This frees them up to travel when they like. I can live in Norway for two months without any disruption to my career, for instance. It’s a privileged, agile position.
Although I travel a lot, it was odd for me to realise that I actually am a digital nomad. For one thing, the word ‘nomad’ seems a little off – I have a permanent address, and although I’ve taken my laptop to work in places across the world, I also have a regular workspace at home. But I think the potential to be as free to move as I want/can afford/my visa rules allow is really what allows me the lifestyle of the digital nomad. I don’t need to make leave arrangements with a boss or request permission to work remotely in order to go somewhere that takes my fancy.
It constantly surprises me that the kind of lifestyle where you can travel and do work you like is actually possible. There are, of course, caveats. It’s not easily available for everyone. You need money, although I’m finding that travel isn’t as expensive as it used to be. With Ryanair flights to wherever costing 10 euros and the availability of very basic AirBnb rooms, the biggest expense is sometimes the rent you pay on your unoccupied flat back home. That is, if you even do have a flat – some digital nomads do not. Good visa arrangements go a long way (this is a plus side to being an Australian). Cultural capital matters too – I was able to go to Strasbourg for free last May because I was on a Youth Media Program, which I wouldn’t have even heard about or be eligible for if I wasn’t a member of a professional group. In the future, I’m likewise hoping to apply for writer’s residencies which offer free or subsidised travel and/or accommodation but, again, requires that you’ve had some recognition of your existing work.
I was a digital nomad before I knew there was such a thing. It was an accidental product of a crappy job market (which led me to the ‘digital’ part, as freelance writing is a highly-digitised profession these days) plus the opportunity to move overseas (which led to the ‘nomad’ part). But I also get that it might be something that readers would like to purposely pursue – after all, you get to travel and be creative. Here’s some advice:
- Invest in your development in your chosen field. For me, this meant taking a fair few classes in the first year about business (not my natural area of expertise) and in how to be a freelance writer. I’d also highly recommend joining a group on Facebook or similar where you can ask people questions about how things work or how to handle different scenarios.
- Have savings. The set-up costs of moving are really high, especially things like costs of visas, deposits on accommodation, incidentals you may need (it’s always more than you think), and so on. You also need to put aside money for other expenses. Freelancers/contractors, for instance, don’t tend to get sick leave entitlements. You need to have extra money in case you get sick, etc.
- Build a client base before you start travelling. The first steps of trying to get regular work can be painstaking/frustrating and it can really take a long time. I was a bit of a slow starter, but it took over a year for me to make anything close to a regular income. It’s also really important to diversify if you’re in an industry that is a bit shaky (e.g. anything to do with media). It’s not enough to find one well-paying client because if they go under then you’re screwed.
- Really think about your destinations. I loved Norway, the natural beauty was wondrous and free to see. However, the costs of living were astronomical! I could budget going out for coffee maybe a couple of times a week and going out for meals about once a fortnight. If you’re in Europe, it pays to stay away from Switzerland and Scandinavia (as great as they are). But there are many wonderful cities which are affordable.
- Decide whether or not you’ll have a homebase, and if so, where it will be. I think it’s better to have a base because then you can have more things than what can fit in a suitcase and you get to cultivate a sense of home. But as I mentioned, some digital nomads don’t have a base. The downside is that having a base is more expensive because every time you travel you’ll essentially be paying twice for accommodation (unless you figure out some kind of subletting arrangement). The reason I’m in Oxford is because my husband is studying here but it has two of the hallmarks of a bad base – high living costs (even higher than London!) and not super-easy to get to other countries (you have to take a train to London for the Eurostar, and getting to any of the five kind-of-nearby airports is far more expensive than the flights themselves). On the plus side, it’s English-speaking, has good working spaces, has really interesting public lectures, and has a great expat community. Where’s good really depends on what you’re looking for, but if you have the option, think carefully.
- When you travel, book early to cut down considerably on price. It’s really expensive to travel spontaneously, even though it’s a super romantic notion.
- If you pay out-of-pocket to travel to go to a conference or similar, your costs may be (at least partially) tax deductible as a business expense! (Circumstances may vary, etc. Check with an actual accountant).
- Get good at working while in-transit. A four-hour train ride can really just be a regular work day. Remember though that the internet on many trains/planes/buses either isn’t existent, cuts out a lot, or is expensive. So save things for offline viewing and choose tasks that don’t require a great internet connection (I tend to read).
I don’t know how long this lifestyle will suit me/my partner/my life goals. This whole blog attests to the fact that there is some ambivalence about being an expat or a traveller rather than someone who has ‘settled down’. Things like starting a family, retirement funds, or home ownership – quite common priorities – tend to get sidelined for really fun, exciting, eye-opening nomadic experiences. I really enjoy living the way I live for the time being. But I imagine that there will be a time when the lack of security and stillness will be problematic. That’s okay too.