The Digital Nomad Movement Has a Real Problem With Hype and Egotism

digital nomad movement

The number of people working remotely is on the rise. Businesses are realising that it makes no sense to keep their employees confined in 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 and YouTube.

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.

Inflated Egos

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 entrepreneurs, ‘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 a minority of idiots 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, the same feeling I have sometimes when I say, “I’m vegan”.

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 awesome, genuine, like-minded 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 anyone else.

Concluding Thoughts

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 world 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.

12 Comments

  1. March 6, 2018 / 7:40 am

    Very insightful article, Sam! You’re absolutely right – the ‘dream’ isn’t being properly represented by the media and those who benefit by ‘recruiting’ digital nomads to come to international hubs. Loneliness, depression and many other health related issues are a reality. Professional, physical and mental health interact in ways we never imagined – https://medium.com/iglu-thailand/professional-physical-and-mental-health-interact-in-ways-we-never-imagined-c48240ab7fa8

  2. March 6, 2018 / 2:06 pm

    really nice one Sam, well put, i always saw this digital nomad stuff through a prism of humor, i mean when i see a daily picture of breakfast smoothie or salad im thinking who the h”” really cares. i have loads of respect for people who have made a good life from nothing , but they dont tend to advertise it so much in social media and are probably more content than the daily posters. u are right its not always peaches and cream and you definately dont get anything done in a hammock:) can be a hell of a lot of fun though

  3. Alena
    March 7, 2018 / 12:34 am

    Hi Sam, very glad I found this post in a CM group on FB. It resonates a lot with me because I’ve felt like something was wrong with me and my view of this lifestyle.
    When I first came to Thailand almost half a year ago, I was soon very disillusioned and depressed because it was nothing like it was promoted on social media in my eyes. I was sold the feeling of pure happiness, abundance, freedom, and success. Truth is I’m just a sweaty and even busier person than I was back home – getting everything sorted out here can be really exhausting and nobody tells you that.
    Looking forward to reading more articles on here!
    Warm wishes from a fellow remotely working vegan x

  4. March 7, 2018 / 1:01 am

    Wow Sam, this article just absolutely nails it. I also cringe at the term for all the reasons you describe.

    I really feel I’m more a ‘work-from-home’ freelancer and the benefits and negatives on the work side are specifically related to that approach (control over workload / project selection, need for self discipline etc). I just have the great privilege that my days off and home are wherever I want them to be any given month, and that’s no small thing if you’re a keen traveller.

    There are certainly many downsides, and the ideal of flitting from beach-to-jungle-to-temple all while getting your work delivered just isn’t ever a reality. I can pick days where I see amazing things and beautiful places, but I don’t think any of them correlate with a day that was anything to do with my work.

    There’s no way I would ever want to over-promote this as an idealist lifestyle, I don’t think many people would even want to juggle the working challenges with the stresses of moving home for the reward of being somewhere ‘exotic’ or new all the time. For many I think the end of a 2 week holiday can be a relief in itself.

    The loneliness can be very real too at times for sure. I’m in Chiang Mai also at the moment so get in touch if you ever want to grab a beer. You can get my email from my website.

  5. Nunya Business
    March 7, 2018 / 3:30 am

    Chiang Mai was once a beautiful place filled with kind hearted native Thai people and a few people who actually love the culture, Buddhism, food, scenery and overall peacefulness . I have been coming here for 15 years and had planned to retire here . But now it had become a cesspool of self centered farang and the countries new master the Chinese. I very rarely engage farang in conversation because I coukd stay at home and be exposed to this new generation of ignoramus. Stanford University just did a study showing how mankind has stopped evolving and I agree wholeheartedly. This being said yes there are many decent intelligent young people here but the majority are just impossible to listen to. Sorry snowflakes . Give me 1 star if you are the people I am talking about.

  6. Lazza
    March 8, 2018 / 1:47 am

    Dirty, smelly DMs make me wanna puke!

  7. March 8, 2018 / 3:27 am

    You make some good points. I once referred to myself as a digital nomad, I even got written up in a couple of magazines complete with obligatory laptop in hammock photo. I have lived in Thailand for five years and Chiang Mai for a little over a year. I agree that the DN thing, especially in Chiang Mai, has attracted scammers and undesirables, and I have seen the attention-seeking behavior you describe. I can get tempted into a cynical view of the whole thing, but I also read posts online from people who desperately want to try to do something different, to not even get started in the 9-5 world and buying a house and car and tons of stuff they don’t need. I see young people trying to find their place, trying to develop marketable skills, trying to find groups of like-minded people they can get help and support from. I come from an earlier generation but as the father of three millenials I see how they have to struggle more than I did at their age. While I understand the type you caricature I hesitate to dismiss hopeful (if often misguided and idealistic) young people as “delusional unskilled millennials who think they’re entrepreneurs.”

    I tell people who want to “become” digital nomads that they shouldn’t think of it as a new identity. They need marketable skills (whether they go nomadic or not), and they need some people skills to market themselves, and they need some practical skills to help them manage the traveling and living in strange places. Calling yourself a digital nomad does not accomplish these things. I attribute a lot of what I see in the DN “community,” good and bad, as the by-product of youthful energy, experimentation, and idealism. They may fail, they may have unrealistic expectations, they may come from a narcissistic and self-congratulatory culture (Americans, ahem). Some of them seem annoying and a few just outright scam and lie and sell snake oil, but as you note the bad apples make up a small minority; most people following their digital nomad dream do it for themselves, even if they sometimes need to talk about it and seek reassurance a bit too often.

    When I read yet another “How can I become a digital nomad?” post or a cry for help from a young person with few marketable skills, I sometimes react with a facepalm. But I remember myself as a young person (a long time ago) with a lot of doubt about my skills and value. I got lucky and had some helpful mentors along the way, so I try to give that back as time and patience permit.

    As for loneliness and depression, I don’t think the DN lifestyle causes that, though it may exacerbate problems someone already has. You can’t run away from everything just getting on a plane to Thailand. If you can’t support yourself at home, or you suffer from loneliness or depression, or you don’t know how to meet people and make friends, or you can’t sniff out a scammer at a meetup, you won’t get better in Chiang Mai.

  8. Matthew, The Kindred Traveler
    March 9, 2018 / 5:44 am

    This was a refreshing read. For the longest time I thought I was just being very cynical by not embracing the digital nomad community with devoted enthusiasm. I have met some amazing location independent folks who have been helpful and real about what it takes to live such a lifestlye which I appreciate. But there seems to be so many who I have come across who like to scream how they made millions in their first months and can show you how to do the same. Which always makes me cringe. I’m glad to read what has been on my mind and know that I’m not alone in this thinking.

  9. gary h.
    March 9, 2018 / 6:38 am

    Hi Sam:
    Good read and I concur with much of what you said. I am far from a DN, as i didn’t touch a computer until I was 23, but I am able to work remotely- I can see how the DN “movement” is very much a mixed blessing for CM, the native Thais and people like myself( I refer to myself as an “analog nomad” 555) and other old-fashioned expats and retirees who love Thai culture, the sense of place, the food, weather, etc.
    I have been regularly appalled at the snide, selfish, caustic, and even reactionary comments and writing of the self-styled “digital nomads”. Granted many appear to just be Millenials hanging out, blogging and snarking at each other as one would expect, but at the same time there is a sad and unsettling spirit to much of it…of course comment sections do self-select the biggest mouths, and as others have commented many of the farang in CM are nice and cool and fine to know and I have met many young techies who are delightful and just love it here…but all in all perhaps not a net positive for Chiang Mai….with 26,000 people on the FB group cruising in and out of town and complaining about wi-fi, stomach problems, scooter rip-offs, the haze and how rent has skyrocketed from $300 to $350, finding a vegan dentist, etc etc. So flame away kids, I can take it…I do wish you all the best. I did hear that Cluj Romania is the place to be!

  10. May 12, 2018 / 8:55 am

    Sam, great piece, and must admit I fully agree with you. For the same reasons you call yourself ‘remote worker’, I rather refer to myself as location independent entrepreneur. It’s basically a digital nomad, but yes, that term is hyped and many of these people seem self-obsessed.

    The problem of loneliness can be fought off by becoming a ‘hybrid nomad’, working both online and offline. It has helped me stayed sane over the 12+ years I’ve been enjoying this lifestyle… and yes, more ‘lifestyle advertisers’ should also highlight the potential problems of working remotely and in countries you may not know anybody…

    Here’s my take on ‘hybrid nomadism’… maybe you and your audience find it useful. https://ceekaiser.com/real-life-lessons/hybrid-nomad/

    Thanks again for that valuable post, Sam! Good work!

    • Sam Woolfe
      May 12, 2018 / 9:03 am

      Thank you, I’m glad to hear you found it valuable. And thank you for introducing me to this concept of ‘hybrid nomadism’ – this is a fascinating post you’ve written here! It seems like it could offer the best of both worlds. It’s definitely something I’ll have to think about more, as being 100% remote can feel extremely isolating at times. We all crave and need a certain level of social connection in our lives. I think this is something that ‘digital nomads’ or aspiring digital nomads probably under-appreciate.

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