What I've Learnt as a Digital Nomad
People often look at me with interest when they find out I’ve stayed for extended periods of time in seven different countries and many times I’ve jumped between three, or four, of those countries in a year. But what does it truly mean to be a digital nomad?
For other people, the notion of traveling the world and turning any desk into an office, sounds romantic. Or maybe adventurous…exotic. Yet, those who travel the world, while they enjoy their nomadic streak, nod at each other, sometimes in pained recognition. There are perks with seeing the world. There are also downfalls with not having a home in one place where you spend the majority of your time.
Personally, I think traveling is something everyone should do, but I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a digital nomad. Here’s what I’ve learned from a lifetime of travels.
Strangers Are Angels in Disguise
There’s an inscription on a wall in Shakespeare and Co. in Paris that says that strangers are angels in disguise. I’ve found this to be true. While you’ll encounter grumpy bus drivers in London, lazy waiters in Cape Town and divas in Hollywood, as a traveler you soon learn that wherever you go, people can and will help you. If your car breaks down, if you need a couch for the night, if something else happens (I was once stranded in Paris without cash, for example), someone will come through for you.
I think this is one of the most valuable lessons as a traveler — if you ask for help you’ll receive it. Eventually. In one way, or another. People, as a general rule, have an innate wish to help others. That lost person with a map will receive random offers from strangers to assist them.
Problem Solving Becomes Your Second Name
Whether you’re lost, your car has broken down or you find yourself in some unexpected circumstance, you need to figure out a way to solve it. In a new place you also simply need to learn to figure things out, even if everything’s going splendidly. It’s new. You have to learn. Time and time again how to navigate your way in a new place.
If you’re uncomfortable with asking directions, think again. Soon you’ll be asking all sorts of people about all sorts of things to be able to get from A to B. Whether you need to find out how to operate the laundry machine, or find a restaurant, traveling means you’re constantly in need of advice from people whom you’ve, most likely, never met before.
I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in a new place. Not having too many plans. To experience what unfolds. You learn to deal with the unexpected.
You Learn to Say Please and Thank You
If you want to get anywhere as a traveler, people skills help immensely. By being kind, caring and polite to the people you meet, you’ll be greeted by lots of unexpected kindness in return. People will go the extra mile to help you out, be it with finding wifi, or giving you a free meal.
The truth is, how we approach people affects how they treat us. If you want them to treat you well, you have to treat them well.
Social Media Allows You to Keep Your Tribe
If it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t know what most of my friends are up to. As I often spend different parts of the year in different parts of the world, it’s hard to keep track of friends and family. I would have missed out on a lot more if it wasn’t for social media. I get to see glimpses of people’s lives, even if I’m not there. I also get to keep everyone I know in one place and can reach out to them at any time, no matter where I am.
It’s hard to have a normal social life when you don’t stay in one place. It’s really hard. But at the very least you can reach all your friends with the click of a button.
Network Is Net Worth…Sort Of
There is an old saying that your network is your net worth. This is obviously related to career, but as a traveler, your network is who will help you out when you’re in a strange place. I don’t know how many people’s couches I’ve crashed on over the years. Friends who have lent me cars, homes… People who have been there for me when something’s happened. And the above mentioned Facebook has often been crucial for this — you update one status and someone leads you to someone, who connects you to someone…
When you grow up in a place, or go to college in a place, and stay there, you usually have a close-knit circle of friends who are there for you. The people you can call on for anything. But as a person traveling, you make new friends all the time. And these are the people who will do anything from showing you around town, to sorting you out when you need a ride.
Whether you’re renting an AirBnB where you put up with the host’s OCD, or messiness, you soon learn to adapt. Your office is a cafe, a hotel room, an airport…
What’s more, you’re constantly orientating yourself. Finding the nearest supermarket. Working out how the trains work. Finding a place for a haircut. Working out social codes in a new culture. Trying new dishes. Everything is about orientation and learning new things.
It can be terribly annoying sometimes. Not to have the exact environment you want. Not to have fast wifi. Not to know if you’ll have to cook amongst the remains of someone else’s dinner. But if you let it get to you, you’re soon in a bad mood all the time. So you adapt.
You Can Be Whoever You Like
There’s something liberating about traveling. No one knows you. You are free from the expectations friends and family have of you. By the time you return home, you’ll have changed.
You’ll Likely Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone
At some point in your travels, chances are you’ll be forced to do something that’s beyond your comfort zone. And by breaking that kind of barrier, you learn that fears can be overcome. It’s liberating. It also takes a lot of courage. Makes you a braver person.
You Learn That There’s No Place Like Home
As many people as you meet during your travels, it can also be lonely. You have to meet a hundred different people, to find forty you gel with. You force yourself to attend Meet Up Groups and InterNations events, even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes you meet people you have the most amazing connection with though. You realize that you have soulmates everywhere. Unique individuals whom you simply hit it off with. But that doesn’t mean that they know your history, your quirks…and that can be great, but it can also make you feel lonely. Home is a place where people do know you.
Stability. Coming home to a place you’ve decked out to suit your needs. The ability to be near those you love. Those are all things you learn to value. Heck, just the feeling of being able to relax because you know where you’re going is incredible. You don’t have to figure out how to get to the supermarket.
I love traveling. I love all it’s taught me. It’s in my blood. I also really appreciate having a home to come home to. For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever have only one place I call home. I mean California is home in that it feels like home. But then there’s France. And all my friends in London. And my place in Cape Town. However, to have at least one apartment, or house, that’s mine somewhere, is crucial. I need to be able to know there is one place where I can just kick back. One place designed how I like it. One place that suits me.
I believe the world would be a better place if everyone spent at least six months traveling to learn about different cultures. To see what other ways of thinking exist. I don’t think everyone can handle staying on the road as a digital nomad though. I think it all depends on what you need to be productive and happy.