The Downside to Life as a Digital Nomad

Nomadic Matt hiking solo in Africa over a rugged cliff
Posted: 7/4/2022 | July 4th, 2022

Digital nomadism, remote work, location independence — whatever you want to call it, it’s hot right now. COVID has changed what “the office” means and people around the world are waking up to something those of us who have long worked online, especially in the digital creator space, learned ages ago: working from anywhere is pretty damn awesome.

Back in 2007, author Tim Ferriss wrote a book called The 4-Hour Work Week. It kicked off a mini-revolution from which digital nomadism was born. The concept of limiting your work hours, setting up your business to generate passive income (make money while you sleep!), and remote work was timed perfectly for the growth of blogging, ad-based websites, and online marketing. (Heck, I started out running AdSense websites.)

Untold numbers of people left home and became “location independent,” making their way around the world and settling into digital nomad hubs like Bangkok while they worked on making money online.

That was the community I was a part of (shout-out to the original Bangkok crew of Mark Weins, Sean Ogle, and Jodi Ettenberg). I remember working from my laptop in my apartment in Bangkok, the cafés of Chiang Mai, the hostels of Europe, and the beaches of Bali.

Back then, being a digital nomad was considered something weird.

“You do what?” “You make money how?” “Is that a real job?”

To the broader society, the whole thing didn’t really make sense. The fact you could make a living doing something online from your laptop was too outside the norm. A real job had an office you went to every day. Everything we were doing just sounded like we were rationalizing our Peter Pan syndrome as we avoided “the real world.”

It wasn’t until the growth of Instagram and influencers that people really stopped asking me about how I made a living. Suddenly, it was, “Oh, yeah, you can make money and work anywhere.”

I’ve watched digital nomadism change a lot since I first started blogging back in 2008, and I’m glad it is finally having its global moment.

But a lot of people think it’s all rainbows and unicorns. While there are many awesome parts of this lifestyle, I want to throw a dose of reality on your enthusiasm.

Yes, you can work anywhere. Yes, it’s great to make your own schedule. Yes, it’s way better than sitting in an office all day.

But that freedom comes with a dark side most people don’t talk about. Yes, it is a life where you can make your own schedule — but there’s no separation between work and play, and you’re always trying to juggle both, thus often failing at both. You never really clock out like you do at an office.

Sure, you’re in Paris and want to go out and explore, but the work still needs to get done, so you might take emails at 10pm and meetings at 7am. With no separation between work time and play time, they both bleed into one another to make you feel more busy because you never, ever turn off. It’s a life that can destroy your mental health without the carefully maintaining the work/play separation the traditional office provided. This is why so many people burn out. Because you never have proper downtime — and your mind needs downtime. The Internet will take everything if you aren’t careful.

It is a lesson I learned the hard way.

And you’ll always be looking for good Wi-Fi. In every hotel, hostel, or café you visit, you’ll wonder, “How’s the Wi-Fi?” That small beach town might be paradise, but when the Wi-Fi sucks and you can’t take that important Zoom meeting, you’ll feel anything but happy. Suddenly, working from the beach won’t seem so great.

(Trust me, you don’t want to be spending your time finding good Wi-Fi. Spend more money on nicer places with better connectivity. In the long term, the price is worth the increased productivity and peace of mind.)

But the biggest downside to being a digital nomad? It can be very lonely.

If you get a few long-termers to talk candidly, they’ll eventually admit that all the months and years on the road are actually pretty lonely. Yes, you do meet a lot of people: someone is always coming or going, there are expats all around, and that friend you met in Medellín is finally going to be at the same spot as you are so you’re happy you’ll know at least one person.

But digital nomads are, by definition, a transient crowd. No one really puts down roots because they are just somewhere until they decide to move on. They are on their own journey. Maybe they stay, maybe they go. Who knows? As such, that often makes them subconsciously keep their distance from others, because why get close to someone when you know that you and everyone else is going to leave anyways?

So, you make friends, and some of them might even become true life-long friends. But most are friends of the moment, connections you have that will die when you move on.

Digital nomads don’t develop the strong social bonds you get when you’re in one place for a long time — and when you know your friends are going to be there for a long time too. It is often why expats primarily hang out with each other. Not only do fellow expats know what you’re feeling but locals don’t want to put in the time to get to know someone who they know is leaving. (Yes, there are exceptions to this “rule,” but just think about how you would react if someone you met was like, “I’m only here for two months!” Would you put as much effort as if that person had said they lived there?)

But humans aren’t meant to be loners. We’re social animals. And, as you get older and the years wear on, the romance of the nomadic life you saw on Instagram fades. Trees only grow when they have roots — and life of a digital nomad is not exactly one of stability.

That’s the hardest part about the whole endeavor and why you see so many people burn out on the nomadic life and settle in one location. After a while, you just get tired of being alone. That hundredth beautiful waterfall is just less beautiful when you have no one to share it with.

So, my advice to all the new digital nomads out there: Live the life you see on Instagram. Buy into that hype. Go out there, roam, have fun! Because it is a lot of fun. Especially in the beginning. I mean, I had amazing experiences. I can’t recommend it enough. It may not be all rainbows and unicorns, but, for a while, it is mostly that.

However, the second that glamour fades (and it will), settle down. Don’t push yourself — that will lead to anxiety if you do. You will be tempted to keep going, because everyone on IG is happy so may be tempted to think the problem is you and if you can just keep going it will get better — but trust me, they are lonely too.

Settle down, go home, or just stay put until you’re ready.

Whatever you do, though, know that it’s not a personal failure. It’s simply that the romance of digital nomadism is a fake ideal created by social media.

People eventually crave stability, clear schedules, deep friendships, and romantic partners. So, when those desires hit, slow your travels down, settle into one place, and create your own 9-to-5.

That’s the real beauty of being a digital nomad. You get to take your desk anywhere and create your ideal life. It’s not about roaming the world, it’s about having flexibility and time.

Just don’t unmoor yourself too completely on the journey. Life is a storm, and if you just blow in the wind rather than finding a safe harbor, eventually you’ll crash into the shore.

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