It’s been a little over two years since I started my “location-flexible life,” otherwise known as being a digital nomad. So it seems like a good time to reflect—sum up the pros and cons, think about what I’ve learned, and gather my thoughts for the future. (See my very first post on this blog, “Why be location-flexible?“)
I hope this will be useful to those of you who are thinking of doing this, but haven’t yet started.
Why I left a secure, interesting job with salary and benefits
A few people told me they couldn’t imagine why I would leave such a good job as head of user experience for the MIT Libraries. It’s a reasonable question!
It wasn’t a decision I made lightly — it took me a couple of years to make the decision and figure out a way to make it happen. The main reason I left is that I’m happiest when I’m learning new things, planning my own projects, and free to experiment with entrepreneurial ideas. When you work for a university library, there are procedures, committees, approvals, and so forth — it’s not so easy to forge your own path. You are part of a large organization and need to work within that structure.
I enjoyed of my time there, especially working with so many amazing co-workers, and I loved being at an institution like MIT, where so much interesting work is happening. But after so many years (14!), I realized I wanted to try my own thing, and lead a more experimental life.
I have no regrets about that decision. I was inspired by reading the blogs of other digital nomads and I hope I can inspire others who are interested in doing the same thing.
Taking it one year at a time
One thing that helped me get the courage to make the leap, was to just plan one year at a time. I figured if I could see a way to make ends meet during the next 12 months, then at the end of the year I could see how things looked and decide what to do from there. If I tried to think about more than one year, it seemed too overwhelming and impossible to predict.
That’s been working well and I’m still thinking ahead only one year at a time. I do have some savings as a cushion, which is something I would recommend.
What I like about living this way
– Getting to know new locations for a few months at a time, rather than just during a short vacation.
– Making new friends, and building up communities of friends in different locations.
– Being able to live where the weather is best. Seattle in the summer and Tucson in the winter was a great combination!
– Being my own boss.
– Having better work-life balance, and control over my own time.
– Being able to take large chunks of time off, to go visit friends and family — and to stay longer while I’m there.
– Doing something that people are always interested in hearing about.
– Being able to travel more often and experience different cultures.
– Having fewer possessions and not needing to deal with managing and organizing those possessions.
– Knowing that I don’t need a lot in the way of material possessions to be happy.
– Being able to get free flights due to all the great credit card deals available for accumulating tons of points. (Also known as “travel-hacking.”)
– Meeting interesting new friends from around the world.
Some challenges of living this way
– Finding short-term housing that is reasonably priced and fully furnished (it’s easier outside of the U.S. than in it).
– Dealing with the fact that laws are written around the assumption that you live in one place — health insurance, state income taxes, voting, and driver’s license renewals. I wish one could elect to be a citizen of the whole U.S., instead of a particular state. Even better, the whole world! (dream on)
– Dealing with organizations that still insist on using physical mail or writing physical checks. I’m almost completely electronic for everything, but there are a few holdouts.
I have friends in Boston who let me use their address as my official mailing address. They email me when something comes. I tell them whether to trash it, scan it and email me, or forward it to me via snail mail. (There are also services that do this for you, like Earth Class Mail). My friends deposit physical checks for me by mail when I’m out of the U.S. (Some places that I work for can do direct deposit, but others will still only pay by check).
– Making the transition when you first move to a new location — learning your way around a new neighborhood, setting up your household, etc.
I usually take a week to get fully comfortable in a new location before I start my work routine again. I’ve learned to expect that I might be out of sorts for a little bit… it’s natural when your habits are disrupted. You can’t do things on auto-pilot, like when you live in one place for a long time. (This is probably good for my brain, though!)
– Saying goodbye to a place just when you’ve made new friends and established a comfortable routine. (Though it is possible to return to your favorite places and people later).
– Deciding what to do with stuff that accumulates during a six-month stay. (Donate it? Sell it? Store it? Mail it to my next location?)
– Keeping consistent eating habits. I usually change my eating habits a bit depending on what’s easily available for food in different locations. I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years and plan to stay that way. But depending on what’s available within walking distance (I live without a car), I may or may not always be able to get my favorite foods. It also depends on whether I have a full kitchen or just a mini-fridge and microwave.
– I miss certain appliances that I used to have, namely my juicer, food processor, and Vitamix blender. Most places I live don’t have those, but I usually buy a cheap blender and then sell or donate it when I leave.
What I’ve Learned
– Everyone is interested when you tell them you’re a digital nomad and many people say they wish they could live this way.
– It’s easier to find reasonably-priced furnished housing for 3-6 month stays when you are outside of the U.S. (Airbnb is good for short-term monthly rentals, but still somewhat pricey in major U.S. cities).
– It’s easy to stay in touch with your friends who are far away. Between phone calls, Skype, Facebook, texting, and email — it’s very easy to keep up with people. This wasn’t true when I was younger, traveling in Guatemala in the 1980s. (This post reminded me of that: 21 Things Travelers Couldn’t Do 21 Years Ago).
– Your best friends will come visit you when you’re staying in interesting new locations.
– It’s important to make local real-world friends in each location. That seems obvious, but at the beginning I relied mostly on virtual connections and only had a few acquaintances locally. I’m good at enjoying my solitude (being an “ambivert” – halfway between introverted and extroverted). But I’m happiest when I also have people to hang out with and get to know in person. So now I make that more of a priority. (I meet friends of friends, join meetup groups, etc.)
– It’s fun to blog about my experiences and tell my story. I don’t put any kind of pressure on myself to blog at certain intervals — just when I feel like it — it’s for fun and I enjoy it more than I thought I would. I also post short updates for my friends on Facebook between blog posts.
– It helps to keep the same routine in each new location. Since everything else is new and different, having a daily routine can be very comforting. I like to work in a coffee shop in the morning, come home for lunch, go to a different coffee shop in the afternoon, come home for dinner, then chill out and relax at home in the evening or hang out with friends, either in-person or virtually. I walk or bike most everywhere, and do a few yoga exercises at home in the mornings.
– I like spreading my work out across six or seven days a week, working fewer hours each day than when I worked full time. I don’t always feel the need to take a whole day off, since part of each day is always off for me. And I enjoy my work! About once a year I enjoy taking a whole month off to travel and visit friends.
– It’s not about how many hours per week you work, it’s about reaching your financial goals over the course of a few months. If you do that while working less than full time — great! More time for a balanced life.
– It’s possible to afford the costs of living in more expensive cities by spending part of the year in very cheap locations (or by house-sitting). I look at my average rent for the whole year, rather than the particular rent in one location.
– By reducing my cost of living so much, I realized I can live a very enjoyable rich life on about 1/3 of what I used to make when I worked full time. I never thought that would be possible! But I am so much happier. I’m rich in friends and experiences rather than in actual dollars. And I can still afford the latest and best technology that I need for my work.
– My sense of time is different — time seems to pass more quickly and it’s easy to remember where I was during certain months in the past because I know where I lived for each part of the year.
Taking a month-long break in June to visit friends around the U.S.
In June I took the whole month off and had a great time visiting friends & relatives around the U.S. I spent a week in San Francisco, a week in Seattle, a week in Omaha — including a road-trip to Ponca State Park (with my sister), then 10 days in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. In each location I stayed with my best friends and relatives — it was really fun! I feel lucky to have friends all over and be able to spend time with each of them.
Where I am now
As of July 1, I’m in beautiful Budapest, doing a web redesign job for the library at Central European University. The payment for this job includes housing in a university-owned apartment, so I’m lucky to be living rent-free for a while! I’ll be here until the end of September. Budapest is beautiful and interesting, full of arts & culture, and easy to get around on foot or by public transportation.
From October through mid-December I’ll try living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’m going there because it’s a known hotspot for “digital nomads.” The weather is nice in the winter and the prices for housing and food are very low.
In mid-December I’ll return to Boston (probably visiting my west coast friends first in San Francisco and Seattle) and then spend the holidays with my friends/family in Brattleboro, Vermont. Having just a couple of weeks of winter weather is fine with me! I store some winter clothes with my friends in Boston and for the rest of the year I don’t need them, because I’m always in spring- or summer-like weather.
In January and February 2016 I’ll return to Tucson where I have a house-sitting job lined up. I enjoyed being in Tucson so much this past winter & spring (January through May), that I’d like to spend that same amount of time again next year. The nice thing about returning to a place I’ve lived in before is that I can resume some new friendships that I’ve made there. And I already know my way around. I’ll probably book an Airbnb rental in Tucson for March, April, and May, after the house-sitting ends.
I have no idea where I’ll go after that, but since that’s almost a year from now, I don’t need to plan it yet. Maybe I’ll try Europe again next summer, if I can find a reasonably-priced location where the weather is not too hot. I enjoy researching new locations, and I’ll probably start doing that when I get to Tucson. (I had fun reading up on New Orleans last year, even though I chose Tucson instead. I watched all the episodes of Treme and read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers).
Why I do it
Overall, I feel extremely lucky to be able to live this way! It suits my personality (I like experimenting) and interests (I’m interested in future trends and finding the best uses for new technology) and the period of life I’m in (pretty far into my career, but not yet old enough to retire). I’m lucky to have all the privileges that being born as a white, middle class, person in the U.S. offers.
I hope that what I’m doing is not only fun for me, but makes a difference to others (I teach about effective use of mobile technologies for education through online courses and books). I’m helping to “train the trainers” (librarians and educators), who work directly with students to empower them with digital literacy.
I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite educators:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this way of life. Are you also a “digital nomad?” Does the idea appeal to you or would you never live this way? Tell me below in the comments, or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!