The number of people working remotely is on the rise. Businesses are realising that it makes no sense to keep their employees confined to offices – the overheads are expensive, and it’s actually a detriment to workers’ well-being and productivity. All the introverts out there will certainly be pleased by this trend, as there is often nothing more nightmarish and exhausting than the constant office-related noise and chit-chat pervading the open-plan office.
The Rise of Digital Nomadism
The increasing availability of remote work has coincided with the growth of a movement that combines work with travel: digital nomadism. Digital nomads are people who use their digital skills to earn money while they travel, and they include dropshippers, bloggers, copywriters, graphic designers, programmers, and teachers. If you can do your work online, then you can work anywhere that has a stable internet connection.
The freedom, flexibility and opportunities this lifestyle presents are incredible and shatter the paradigm of the 9-to-5 grind that many people dread getting trapped in. However, as great and varied the benefits of digital nomadism are, I have noticed some real problems with the movement since deciding to work remotely in Chiang Mai (I’m not really that ‘nomadic’ per se. Travelling around a lot while working sounds way too tiring and stressful, especially when I have a busy schedule and deadlines already to manage).
The two main issues I have with the movement are how over-hyped and egotistical it has become. This particularly applies to the digital nomads who incessantly advertise the lifestyle on their blogs, social media accounts and YouTube channels.
Don’t get me wrong, there are down-to-earth and honest YouTubers who talk about the lifestyle but I would say they are far outnumbered by the more self-obsessed and one-sided.
It’s these two problems with the movement that make me cringe when I hear the term ‘digital nomad’ and it’s why I won’t refer to myself as one (apart from the fact I don’t travel around very much). Instead, I just prefer to say I work remotely.
Selling a Dream
There are so many times in the day when I feel grateful and insanely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m passionate both about writing and the subjects that I write about. It’s a career path that I also find fulfilling because it draws on my creativity, allows me to constantly learn new things, forces me to challenge my views, and presents all kinds of obstacles to overcome. Besides the meaningful nature of my work, I can do it pretty much anywhere – my room, in my bed, in a coffee shop, a coworking space, a beachside restaurant, the airport, a friend’s house; anywhere with WiFi. I also have a high degree of autonomy over my work, something which appears to be key to well-being.
I also feel lucky when I can spend a day seeing something new if I feel like it or I can travel to a new country while taking my work with me. Having this freedom to travel is an incredible privilege. Remote working can afford you work-life balance and so it’s no wonder many digital nomads say they’re living the dream and want to announce it to the world.
Nevertheless, being realistically grateful and appreciative of your new lifestyle doesn’t justify becoming unrealistically biased about what you’re doing. Understandably, the nature of social media encourages us all to publicise, cherry-pick, exaggerate and airbrush the positive things in our lives, while keeping the more troublesome aspects hidden.
I think it’s a real problem, though, not being honest about the struggles that digital nomads face. In speaking to many digital nomads in Chiang Mai, as well as from personal experience, I know that loneliness is the spectre that looms over many people ‘living the dream’. Moving to a new country alone, working remotely, facing cultural and language barriers, and being away from family and friends (especially during difficult times) can all contribute to the heavy pain of isolation and alienation.
Loneliness is no joke. It’s a risk factor for depression and poses a greater public health risk than obesity. ‘Living the dream’ has negatively impacted my mental health at times and I know it’s done the same for many others.
This is why I think it is irresponsible not to give an honest and balanced picture of the lifestyle, instead of over-hyping it and selling a dream that may not turn out as rosy as it was advertised.
Those photos you see of people working from their laptops on a beach only contribute to the fantasy, and it’s one way that digital nomads market their lifestyle (along with pushing their free E-books and courses). Mike over at Hobo with a Laptop calls these photos a form of ‘lifestyle design porn’. Most digital nomads don’t actually work like that. It’s not a good way to be productive. Plus, it’s really not practical. Why would you risk getting sand in your laptop? How are you connected to the WiFi? And surely it must be a tad irritating to have to squint at your laptop screen due to the glare from the sun.
Many digital nomads will also share photos of themselves with their laptops in a hammock, even though a hammock is clearly made for chilling, not cracking on with work. Perhaps they’ve included self-masturbatory hashtags alongside the photo, such as #officefortheday and #officeview. Constant social media updates using digital nomad hashtags isn’t inspirational – it’s annoying. Also, let’s keep in mind that these Instagrammers must have asked someone to take this perfect photo in order to share it on social media.
What perhaps makes me cringe more than the hype surrounding the movement is the egotism. It would obviously be wrong to generalise and say that all digital nomads are narcissistic and need to keep their egos in check. This is something we all need to do. But I have noticed that some digital nomads are very much attached to, and invested in, the label of ‘digital nomad’. Even digital nomads who decide they want to settle somewhere and no longer be nomadic don’t want to give up the label. The YouTuber Chris the Freelancer, for example, says this is when you become a ‘digital nomad 2.0’. But really, this is known as being an expat or location independent.
For some people, digital nomadism becomes a new identity, a way of standing out, being special and superior to all the non-digital nomads who are blindly following a normal and mundane path in life. You get to say, “I’m a digital nomad”, and in this social media-driven age where being unique and interesting is what counts, this can feel very satisfying. So you cover your laptop with co-working space stickers to let the world know that you are part of a revolutionary trend.
This superiority complex and self-obsession is what taints the term ‘digital nomad’. It helps explain why (in Chiang Mai, at least – the epicentre of the movement) there are so many Tim Ferris wannabes and supposed life coaches, self-help gurus and wellness experts, as well as misguided, idealistic millennials who think they’re ‘crushing it’ and going to ‘make it’. As the YouTuber Brett Dev emphasises, the reason so many digital nomads fail is that they try to do too many things at once (e.g. blogging, vlogging, coding, e-commerce, coaching and consulting) and don’t end up making much progress on anything. This is known as Shiny Object Syndrome. The most reliable path to success, as Brett points out, is to focus on one skill or business idea and hone it. Become an expert at what you do, so you don’t burn through your savings and have to return home.
There’s always going to be an idiotic minority who muddy any positive movement (veganism would be another example). Unfortunately, the egotistical few mean that the term which encompasses the movement can leave a sour taste in your mouth when you say it.
When I think ‘digital nomad’, pretentiousness comes to mind; I think of someone desperately wanting to be progressive, working better than everyone else, and travelling better than anyone else.
Luckily, if you work remotely and enjoy travel, you don’t need to get wrapped up in the hype and egotism of the movement. Most digital nomads I’ve met, in fact, have been genuinely great people.
I’m not saying digital nomadism has been forever spoiled by a small cringe-worthy minority of people and must be rejected. Like with the vegan movement, I just think there’s room for improvement, which is also why I will criticise vegans as much as any non-vegans out there.
In writing this, I realise I may be exposing some of my cynicism and judgement. Maybe I’m guilty – or have been guilty – of the same thing I claim that irritates me about others. That’s entirely possible. However, I also wonder whether it is social media that is the real problem since it tends to magnify hype, self-promotion, self-absorption and trendiness.
Living this lifestyle is, overall, significantly better than the prospect of doing a 9-to-5 back home. But there’s no need to say any more than that. As tempting as getting attached to the digital nomad identity may be, it will only end up boosting your ego, rather than bringing you back down to earth. Ironically, while digital nomads may be pursuing and espousing this lifestyle in the name of self-improvement, they may end up acting counter-productively if they seek attention and ego boosts in the process. There’s no self-improvement in that.
By all means, find remote work and reap the benefits. But be mindful of how over-hype can foster jealousy and unrealistic expectations in people, and avoid the trap of elevating yourself above others just because you’ve made positive changes in your life.