Are Your Misconceptions of Digital Nomads Holding You Back from a Life You Want?

 


I thought I knew what a digital nomad was until I spent a month with a bunch of them.

It turns out I had no idea.

I’m only 6 months into my own digital nomad journey and, thanks to Covid, I’d not met many (or indeed any), so I had my own prejudices of who they are and what they’re like.

I’ve now realized that I was working on an outdated perception of what a digital nomad is.

Now, I’ve chucked my prejudices in the trash. I’m left with a sense of the real benefits of digital nomadism, not only for the nomads themselves but also for the communities they live in.

But prejudices can run deep. And if you’re judging digital nomads as social media influencers who lounge on a beach all day sipping cocktails, do you run the risk of never discovering a potentially life-changing way of living for yourself?

I had my own prejudices of what a digital nomad is, and I am one

Last month, I won a competition to live as one of 10 digital nomads living on the dime of Dubrovnik city in exchange for helping them shape their future regenerative tourism strategy.

To apply, I had to send in a one-minute video of myself saying why I wanted to join the program.

Video courtesy of Total Croatia News

It’s one cringe-worthy minute, particularly because of one line in there. After I explain that I sold my business, house, and all my possessions for a life as a digital nomad, then I say:

“Which just goes to show that you don’t need to be young to have this sort of life.”

I thought I was being clever talking about my grand old 36 years as being ‘different’ because I thought all digital nomads were young and responsibility-free.

I turned up to Dubrovnik, and I met the nomads. There was a 26-year-old CEO of a healthcare startup, a 43-year-old Spanish ‘future of work’ consultant, a 33-year-old spirits company marketing manager, a 42-year-old Ph.D. student, and a 50-something radio DJ and mother of four, among others.

Our working hours ranged from floating and flexible like mine to very strict, complete with clock-in and clock-out requirements. Our politics and social views ranged across the whole spectrum. We were all so very different.

The only thing we really had in common was that we worked remotely. My mind was well and truly blown.

Tim Ferriss has a lot to answer for

Tim Ferriss’s 4-hour workweek was one paradigm-shifting book, but it also helped to instill some serious prejudices against remote workers, like we only work a few hours a day and always next to a body of water.

My time in Dubrovnik was no different. At one point, a local media outlet asked 4 of us to pose on the beach with our laptops for an article subsequently titled “We can work four hours, drink coffee and make good money.”

Image courtesy of Dubrova─Źki Vjesnik

Spoiler alert: none of us actually said that. And none of us ever worked from that beach. I don’t want sunstroke after working on a laptop in direct sunlight, thank you very much.

But these prejudices are there. A local apartment owner told one of the women on our program this month that she thought digital nomads were “just backpackers who spend no money.” Another local told us they thought we were all social media influencers, just here for a good time and a few photos on the beach.

Negative connotations of digital nomads are stuck in many of us, good and proper.

Why do these prejudices matter?

Prejudices like these reinforce the idea that traditional work = good, remote work = bad.

The traditional workplace environment has been dying for many years, and digital nomadism embraces many workplace practices that are seen as the future, such as remote working and utilizing technology.

But the lifestyle is vilified. Think of all the common misconceptions of digital nomads (of which there are many):

  • They’re social media influencers that travel the world for the perfect Insta-shot, collecting free swag as they go.
  • They are glorified backpackers.
  • They barely work, lounging at the pool all day.

Of course, these misconceptions just aren’t true for the vast majority of digital nomads. After all, a digital nomad is simply someone who works online in an independent location. Salaries of digital nomads are as wide-ranging as fixed-location employees. 22% make $50-$100k, for instance, with 20% making more than $100k.

But if you don’t see yourself fitting into any of the above categories, would you dismiss the idea of digital nomadism before you even start?

Many of our perceptions of digital nomads are outdated and based on misinformation, and it would be a tragedy if they prevented someone from living a life that they want. After all, digital nomadism is a genuine possibility for many people.

In 2019, 17% of US employees worked from home. In 2020, it was 44%.

So nearly half the US workforce now has the potential to become a digital nomad. It could be a permanent move or a temporary one. It could be a regular stint every few months or a one-time experience. That’s the thing about digital nomadism — no one can tell you how to do it or for how long; it’s up to you.

The pandemic has made us all tired and in dire need of something, anything, different. Could adopting a digital nomad lifestyle be your ticket to a happier post-pandemic world?

After all, the benefits are enormous.

Digital nomads = sustainable travel

Fast travel is out; the pandemic saw to that.

The average stay of a digital nomad in one location is 8 weeks. That’s enough time to make some friends, learn a few cultural customs and gain a deeper understanding of local surroundings.

This isn’t a group who spend 3 days on an intensive sightseeing tour, partying all night in crappy bars (OK, not many of them) to fly home the next day, having satiated their thirst at the expense of their holiday destination.

Spending longer periods in one place means acting more like a local. That could be taking part in local coffee culture or buying groceries from the early morning green market.

It’s slower-paced, it’s more immersive, and it enriches everyone.

As 

 says:

By engaging with locals on a deeper basis, and having more in-depth conversations, they get to learn about your culture as much as you get to learn about theirs.

And let’s not forget the advantage slow travel has for those who are cautious about traveling in a post-pandemic world. A slower pace means less time in planes, trains, and automobiles, which is just as well as travel costs rise.

Slow travel benefits everyone, and digital nomadism means it’s accessible to many more people than ever before.

More digital nomads = better local communities

I was drinking with a local bar owner during my month in Dubrovnik and asked him: What do you really think of digital nomads?

“I love them,” he told me, “because they bring new ideas and innovations.”

He’s right.

Digital nomads are not tourists (and don’t ever accuse them of being one, it won’t go down well). Instead, they tend to be far more integrated with their local community. Some will stay for many months and learn the local language. Like my friend in Northern Spain, others will volunteer their free time to teach English or other activities.

They bring their own special brand of ideas and initiatives to their community, whether they stay one month or 12. It could be demonstrating a new way of working, a different perspective on work-life balance, a consulting role to local businesses.

It could just be social media content that helps build the reputation of the area they’re living in. We’re all social media influencers, apparently.

In essence, digital nomads are a bunch of people who have worked out what matters to them and run with it.

They are as diverse as those who work in traditional office jobs, but with one thing staunchly in common; in the Monopoly game of life, they have skipped straight to Go.

You can’t pigeonhole 4.8 million nomadic workers much more than that.

The digital nomad life isn’t easy to orchestrate. If you’re you’re one of the 17 million people aspiring to become one; there will possibly be hundreds of obstacles to overcome to realize your dream.

You don’t need to add misconceptions — something that isn’t even real — to the pile.

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