It’s more than just a LinkedIn headline, hashtag or slightly enlarged, maybe bolded, resume title.
For many DNs, it’s truly a way of life, one that’s brought about some of their most memorable experiences. Some have spent months, even years, preparing to become a digital nomad. And though there are stories of people’s successes and failures, few regret embarking on a life of location independence.
“The one thing that binds us all together is the outlook we have on being location independent,” said Chris Blatchly, a New York native who became a digital nomad in 2014. He got his start as the first employee for KYA, a digital analytical startup company formed by a good friend he met in college.
“We want to be doing it,” he said. “We’re doing it for a reason and most likely sought out the opportunity the moment we saw it. Not all want to see the entire world, but we all seem to want the freedom that comes with it.”
In between living in Queens, New York, Blatchly, like most DNs, travels across international waters, fully immersing himself in the cultures he explores. His inspiration to travel is driven by his appreciation for foreign cuisine, as he’s gradually marked off his bucket list of foods for the past five years.
But more than anything, Blatchly has been exposed to other’s circumstances, many unseen by people who haven’t ventured beyond their country’s borders or nine-to-five positions. These experiences, he says, widens the world scope of DNs, helping to further develop their personal growth.
“Travel and experiencing the world around us teaches you things that just don’t happen at a job or in a classroom,” said Blatchly. “It’s also not always comfortable or predictable. Learning to deal with that uncertainty and certain level of discomfort can really help an individual grow.”
But with the opportunities that come with being a world traveler, often people fall out of the nomadic lifestyle. Whether it’s because of a lack of substantial income, a lost desire to travel, or a person’s pursuit of a more stable profession, there’s a crop of former DNs who decided to store away their passports and work visas.
Katherine Conaway, a freelance consultant and writer, whose gone on to co-author “The Digital Nomad Survival Guide,” attributes people’s departure to the difficulties nomads confront while locating to other countries. As a solo traveler since June 2014, having traveled to over 50 countries, she’s experienced the withdraws of isolation, a problem many DNs face during their expeditions.
“First of all, a digital nomad lifestyle is still a lifestyle. So all the normal life things come along with it, even if in a different form than before,” said Conaway. “It can be isolating and lonely to be far away from your friends, family, and community. So, it’s definitely going to be a struggle sometimes.”
During moments of isolation, Conaway says, it’s important to maintain all forms of communication with friends, family and loved ones. That way, when DNs are stressed or exhausted from overexerting themselves on the road, they can reach out and vent their frustrations. Conaway uses several apps to communicate with her family, even adopting a virtual online therapist to keep her chaotic life at a balance.
“I’ve had breakups and heartache, I’ve had money concerns and also been overworked, and so on,” she said. “Personally, I’m very lucky to have a few friends and family members that I’m close to and keep in regular touch with thanks to WhatsApp and video calls. And I have used Talkspace for four-plus years now, so I have a therapist who has been an incredibly necessary resource and support for me.”
For Blatchly, the biggest challenges he and other nomads face are centered on their finances. At times, it’s difficult for them to find stable work positions — remote, freelance or self-employment — and budget their incomes, especially if they have to ration out their earnings.
“Many [digital nomads] resort to spending time in countries with a lower cost of living than their home country,” said Blatchly. “If you want to travel to places where the cost of living is higher, you’re going to want a steady paycheck. Keeping a gig that is steady is a big part of maintaining the lifestyle.
“Budgeting is huge. I’ve naturally been good at it even as a kid so the lifestyle works well for me. But it can be an adjustment for some to have to ration and truly save for a time when you may need it.”
To offset the struggles of budgeting, many nomads opt to develop creative ways to bring in more cash and prepare for the costs of their trips and living conditions.
“I picked up a few part-time remote gigs to bring in some extra cash, so when the more time-consuming jobs weren’t as busy, I’d have something to fall back on,” said Blatchly. “This is super helpful in creating a few different revenue streams to diversify your income. I also invested a bunch of my savings so I’d have a retirement plan in action during the process.”
For those that have endured these obstacles and decided to step back from nomadism, it’s fairly commonplace, said Blatchly. Naturally, being a DN has its moments of settlement — some for longer periods than others. But with the nomadic lifestyle, there’s always ways to get back to it. Blatchly’s story is a testament.
“There will be periods of time where you need to take a break, even if you don’t want to. I had a bit of a health concern with a disc in my lower back over the last 2 years and took a substantial break from long-term travel. Only doing weekend trips or maybe 10 days at most. Health comes first.”
“I am living proof that it can come to a sudden stop,” said Blatchly. “You may have to wait a bit before getting back into it or find new ways to make it work. But it’s worth it. You have to want it. You have to want a change, to experience something new and that makes all the difference.”
Through the obstacles they’ve faced, both Blatchly and Conaway feel the move to become a DN was a life-changing step. Not only with the benefits of exploration, but the lessons they’ve carried along the way.
With their shortened possessions, DNs transport between their travels, bolstering a new set of experiences from living in different environments. It’s a gift not many can obtain, Conaway says, and one she’s privileged to have garnered.
“Travel has been such a rich but challenging experience for me,” she said. “It constantly forces me to adjust my perspective, confront my biases, rewrite my understanding of history and informs the choices I make.
“There have been so many amazing individual experiences, but I think what’s most rewarding is the way they all come together to help me understand the world and history in a much deeper way than I would have otherwise.”
The freedom to travel the world and broaden one’s perspective has been the highlight of her life. Even through the issues Conaway has confronted, she wouldn’t store her passport or work visa to miss out on further explorations and opportunities for growth. Being a digital nomad has been her life’s greatest gift.