The digital nomad lifestyle has folks working remotely from far-flung regions abroad, their only requirement being a stable internet connection. It’s like a sustainable backpacking trip that never ends.
Digital nomads get paid in western currency and leverage the low expenses of living overseas. They hop from location to location, seeing the world while building their business from wherever they are.
It’s a rising trend, especially for young adults daunted by the high cost of living in western countries. As you might expect, there are plenty of self-proclaimed gurus and coaches riding the trend, offering courses and training programs for those who aspire to live the lifestyle.
I wanted to learn more about the digital nomad lifestyle from someone who wasn’t caught up in all that. So I reached out to Jon Brown. Jon is a familiar face in the WordPress community, traveling to WordCamps around the globe while running his web agency, 9seeds. Read on for an in-depth Q&A about the digital nomad lifestyle.
— Jon Brown (@jb510) August 27, 2017
What inspired you to start doing the “digital nomad” thing?
I got hooked on travel after taking a month off after university to backpack around Europe. I then spent 10 years working as a civil engineer in Southern California, and while I loved that career and the people I worked with, I just kept dreaming of more extended travel.
When I got back, I didn’t want to go back to anything that was going to tie me down geographically. So, I tried starting a career as a photographer, until I learned selling photography and making a living at it wasn’t my thing … I don’t know how any artistic creatives manage to make a living at their passion, I couldn’t.
Thankfully, I transitioned that into web development, building a custom WordPress blog for one of my photography clients.
Within a few months, I was earning more building web. sites than I was selling photography, and because I’d defined from the start that I wasn’t aiming for “local clients” I was on the road to location independence.
Building web sites finally gave me the location independence, along with the financial stability, I dreamed of. Ten years later, I own and run a small agency while remaining location independent; all the staff is remote and is welcome to roam, but none of them do. A couple have moved house, but that’s about it.
How often are you traveling?
My wife and I keep trying to slow down how often we relocate, but external factors keep us from being any one place for more than a couple months.
We’re both from Southern California and have access to a lovely little cabin up in little mountain town named Idyllwild. That is the closest thing to a “home” we have, and we’ll spend a couple month there each year. The rest of the year, nine months or so, we’re traveling somewhere.
Of all the places you’ve visited so far, which one is your favorite?
Thailand is still my favorite, although Italy or Spain are both getting close to dethroning it.
Thailand is easy and comfortable. First and foremost, the Thai people are friendly and hospitable. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere in that country. It’s also inexpensive by western standards, which means your money goes farther. I can rent a comfortable apartment for far less than anywhere else, and it also means I can pay someone to cook, clean, launder and drive.
How do you choose your destinations?
There are two things that drive where we go.
First, some event, usually a WordCamp, is happening somewhere we want to go. For example, this summer we went to WordCamp Europe in Paris, France. After that, we spent two weeks in Paris, then two months in Spain.
Where we went in Spain was largely just places friends said were cool and worth checking out. That’s how we came to spend a month in the small Spanish town of Ronda, famous for its bridge, but also surrounded by vineyards, music and all together amazing. We literally hadn’t heard of Ronda until a few months before.
What are the upsides to the digital nomad lifestyle?
The biggest one has to be the food. I don’t like the term foodies because it sounds rather posh, but we love the authentic diversity of food we get to enjoy. While we do occasionally get the five-star meal, it’s more about the authentic tortilla, phad thai, or risotto, in Spain, Thailand and Italy respectively.
What are the downsides to the digital nomad lifestyle?
The biggest one is what it does to friendships. There are advantages on that front — I have real friends in a dozen countries, but those friendships that are location-based do suffer over time. It’s easy to dismiss those as the trivial friendships, but many are not and they are weakened by the extended breaks.
How do you deal with being so far from family?
My family is/was already pretty spread out, so we’ve always been about the occasional phone call and seeing each other on holidays, sometimes.
Funny aside, my mom moved from California to Hawaii when I, the youngest of three, went away to college. A few years later she mentioned to the family she was considering moving to New Zealand. She expected some pushback about being so far away, and we all had the same reaction, which was positive. To us, there wasn’t much difference between flying to Hawaii to see her and flying to NZ to see her.
I’ve heard both that the digital nomad lifestyle is expensive AND that it’s affordable. Which is true? Why?
I think it’s mostly affordable, but I think that it’s a bit overrated. You can indeed live very inexpensively in places like Thailand and Bali, but most of the 20-somethings I see do that also skip out on health insurance or retirement investing.
I kind of feel thankful I started in my 30s after 10 years of working in a traditional work environment and establishing some useful, long-term plans as a baseline.
What resources do you rely on to support you?
These days, it’s mostly peer to peer, meaning people I really know that have been doing the same thing a while. We all have different goals and needs, but we understand each others’ goals and needs.
That said, the real treasure of information out there is in the blogs you can only find via Google. Authentic personal stories are worth so much more than the sites catering to digital nomads. The targeted sites are useful tools, but they’re necessarily superficial.
How do you handle personal well-being when you’re always on the go?
Not well. I go in cycles, I think the same cycles I would if I weren’t traveling. Sometimes, I exercise a lot (yoga, swimming, running) and get some high-quality rest. Other times, I’m a complete workaholic foregoing all of that. Either way it’s a cycle.
When will you settle, if ever?
Settled to me looks like owning a property somewhere that we live in most of the year. I don’t see that for at least another five to 10 years. The thing is, we can — and have — slowed down a lot. We never go anywhere for a week or two anymore, and we’re returning to places we already know, which feels more settled down as well.
What first steps do you recommend others take if they’re interested in this lifestyle?
First, figure out how to have a career that is location independent.
I really don’t subscribe to the “quit your job, fly to Bali/Thailand, then figure it out” mantra a lot of people preach. Can you? Maybe, and damn it sounds good when you’re selling a lifestyle design seminar.
But the reality is, I’ve known too many people who try that and end up scraping for work on Fiverr before giving up and moving back in with their parents.
Instead, figure how to get paid by people that don’t care where you are. Once you’ve got that figured out, then you’re free to move about the planet.
Any final words of advice?
In the end, the easiest step is selling your house or ending your lease, putting things in storage, and breaking free of all those physical tethers to a location dependent life. Mentally coming to terms with letting go of those same things is by far the hardest part, though.