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What it's really like to be a digital nomad

You know those digital nomads who are on never-ending vacations? Yeah, they don't exist.

October 6, 2012 06:57 AM ET

Computerworld - I'm a digital nomad. Almost all my worldly possessions are in storage. I'm currently, but temporarily, living in Sparta, Greece, and have been doing so for more than two months. Next month, I'll be moving to Africa.

You may have heard of us digital nomads. We use mobile computing and the Internet to work from wherever. You'll find us on any of hundreds of digital nomad-focused blogs. A small handful of these blogs are fantastic, but most of them are annoying fluff. (Here are some of the great ones.)

The fluffy digital nomad bloggers tend to show pictures of themselves on a deserted beach or mountain top, which makes the lifestyle look picturesque, but lonely and pathetic. (Just scan (Google Image Search for the term "digital nomad" for some choice examples.)

Digital nomad blog posts gravitate to breezy lists of jobs that lend themselves to the digital nomad lifestyle (freelance writer, freelance illustrator) and justifications about why being a digital nomad is awesome (you get to work on the beach, no commute).

Taken as a whole, the digital nomad blogs are shallow, useless and grossly misleading.

What's wrong with most of those blogs

The digital nomad lifestyle is often interesting and exciting and people want to express that. So when they're on the beach with a laptop, they feel like that's a digital nomad scenario so they take a lot of pictures of that.

They don't photograph the sweaty slog through the dirty city earlier in the week, or the 12-hour bus ride, or the two-hour hunt for Wi-Fi, or the nine hours spent in a dark, shabby room meeting a deadline. They don't photograph the power failures, the plumbing, the traffic, the mosquitos, the poverty, the roving packs of feral dogs, the corrupt policemen, the mangled street beggars and other such things they encountered along the way. That might compromise their relentless sales pitch for the idyllic digital nomad lifestyle.

As a result, the public image of digital nomadism is all postcard-perfect landscapes, charming restaurants and relaxing hammocks in the shade designed to torture the cubicle-bound.

What it's really like to be a digital nomad

Living as a digital nomad is exactly like working from home in some ways, and totally unlike it in others.

I get up in the morning when my iPhone alarm goes off, make coffee and start my routine. I catch up on email and the news, interact a little with my friends on Google+, then get to work. I'm glued to the same laptop and iPad I used in Silicon Valley (though I do miss my 27-inch iMac). I use the same software and web sites.

My personal life is similar, too. I'm not a tourist. I live here. I have a local library card and a membership at a local gym. I run into friends I know on the street. Most of the food I eat is made by my wife or me in the kitchen in our apartment. I do dishes and take out the trash. I recently saw Batman and Resident Evil at the local movie theater.

The difference is that when I look up from my laptop, I can see the breathtaking Taygetus mountains, where ancient Spartans used to hunt wild boar for their black soup, instead of my old apartment complex parking lot.

Digital nomad view
When I look up from my laptop, I see the Taygetus mountains, where ancient Spartans used to hunt. (Image: Mike Elgan)

When I have an occasional day off, I can visit other historic places like Olympia or Athens.

Man-made things are smaller outside America. Smaller cars, smaller houses, less water pressure in the shower, less air conditioning, less food variety and so on.

And things for digital nomads are smaller still: The screen on my MacBook Pro, which I use to watch downloaded iTunes movies, is much smaller than the giant flat-screen TV I've got packed up in storage. My wine opener, bottle opener, can opener and scissors are all attached to my Swiss Army Knife. All my possessions fit into two backpacks.

What's really great about being a digital nomad

The great thing about being a digital nomad isn't the ability to work on the beach (which is uncomfortable and annoying, by the way). Digital nomad living gives you two quality-of-life loopholes.

First is a financial loophole. Generally speaking, pay is higher in expensive places and lower in cheaper places. You get paid like you're in an expensive place, but you're actually in a cheap place.

The second is a psychology loophole. Our minds crave something new. And when you're a digital nomad, novelty is free. Let me explain.

As we live our lives, we get used to everything around us. It bores us. That's why we try a new restaurant or go to the movies or remodel the kitchen or buy new clothes - we want something new.

When you stay in one place, novelty is expensive. But when you're a digital nomad, novelty is free.



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