The 12 Lessons of Digital Nomad Christmas

by Dec 30, 2019

The 12 Lessons of Digital Nomad Christmas

With Christmas, the New Year, and the end of the decade just a few days away, I found myself looking back on the last year like many of us do. It was a big year for me, I was the first person in my family to ever step foot in Asia, I grew professionally to a level I did not expect, I helped lead a successful trip to Bulgaria, and I even had my own apartment for the first time.

This is was the year that I was truly able to achieve some of the goals and dreams I set out to accomplish way back when in 2016 when I decided to become a digital nomad, and since then I have learned many lessons, some from trial and experience, and others were taught to me by the amazing mentors I’ve been able to find along the way.

To wrap up the year I wanted to take some time and list out the biggest lessons and tips I have learned in my 3+ years as a digital nomad, and since currently everywhere I look I see Christmas lights and Santa Clauses I decided to call it my 12 Lessons of Digital Nomad Christmas.

See what I did there…it’s like the 12 Days of Christmas…

If you are not interested in reading this, and you’d rather listen, you can also check out the audio version that I did for That Remote Show👇🏼

1. The less stuff, the merrier the experience

2019 was really the first year that I made an earnest effort to travel with less stuff. In previous years I found that I would bring a lot of things and really only use about 75% of them. So, in late 2018, Tortuga was nice enough to send me some bags to test out and they have made my travel life so much more enjoyable.

Since we weren’t traveling with rolling suitcases anymore, I started eliminating a lot of the things I brought traveling. Wherever possible I innovated so that I owned fewer things, but overall those things were of higher quality. I only travel with a few shirts that I absolutely love and try to own things that serve multiple purposes. The result has been amazing. 

Not only did it make traveling from one place to another so much easier, but it also really cleared my mind. I was no longer surrounded by a bunch of items that I had to dedicate time and thoughts to and the things that remained in my life were things that I really enjoyed. 

The ultimate proof of this was when I came home at the end of the fall and was reintroduced to all the things I had stored. Tons of clothes and little things that I never wore or used but for some reason I still keep. My room immediately became a mess and I had to spend time every week to clean it and keep it orderly.

Trust me on this, be really critical about the things you own and travel with. Get rid of things you don’t absolutely love and then allow yourself to innovate with the things you do own. 

Purchase the best and only live with things that bring you joy.

2. Start with the Freshmen dorms of location independence

I’m not entirely sure where I heard the term “freshmen dorms of location independence” but either way it’s a very real thing.

These are the places that are often frequented by location independent entrepreneurs, professionals, and digital nomads. Places like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Bali, etc. 

You can easily figure out a list of these places by visiting NomadList, either way, if you are new to the lifestyle these should be the first places you visit.

Being new to the lifestyle likely means that you don’t know many people who are also nomads and can make the experience feel like a very lonely. The freshmen dorms of location independence are a magnet for many people just like you and will give you the chance to make friends with people who understand you.

Even more important is that the relationships you form in places like this can travel with you all over the world. If you meet a new friend in Chiang Mai in January you can make a place to meet them Budapest in October. 

You can form a small group of people you really click with and plan your travels with them in mind making sure that you always have a kindred spirit anywhere in the world. These locations simply increase your chances of meeting someone with the same lifestyle that you really click with.

Another thing you can look at if you are new to the lifestyle are events that you can attend. I highly recommend looking into events like this whether it’s some type of conference or something else like Nomad Cruise. Participating in events like this early on in your “nomad career” can introduce you to tons of people that you can have relationships with for years

3. Build a cash buffer

This is something I think everyone should do, even if you are not a digital nomad, but I think it’s even more important for people that are freelancers, entrepreneurs, or frequent travelers. 

As an entrepreneur or freelancer, especially early on, revenue can be unstable. You can have a large windfall of cash after you land a big client or project, and then not see new cash for months. Having a cash buffer of at least 3 months (although 6 months is what I would really recommend) helps to reduce stress and smooth things out when work is slow.

As a frequent traveler, you do run risks other people don’t. You could have your laptop stolen, you can get stuck in a city and need to buy an emergency hotel room, or you could get sick and need to seek medical attention. 

These are all things that you wouldn’t normally work into your monthly budget but do happen from time to time. A cash buffer can help you cover those expenses without cutting into your normal budget.

The best way I have found to build this buffer is to do it early on, perhaps even before you leave your 9 to 5 job.

As you start working online on the side, take all that money and start putting it in the bank while your 9 to 5 continues to cover your expenses. That way when you finally quit your job you will know that if shit really does hit the fan you are good for a little while.

4. Being location independent is not the solution to your problems

I remember when I first decided to become location independent it was all I could think about. It didn’t matter what I was doing or how much money I was making as long as I could do it from anywhere in the world. I thought that once I became location independent the rest of my problems would go away. 

Surprise…they didn’t!

The first few months were absolute bliss and every day I didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock and rush off to work were a gift. But after a few months that excitement wore off. 

One day I woke up and realized that I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I was still bored with my day to day work, and I still had all the insecurities I had before that. 

Becoming location independent was one of the best decisions I ever made, but don’t think that it will be the solution to all your problems. You will still be the same person on the other side and you will still have to deal with all the issues you had before.

5. Don’t put the lifestyle on a pedestal

I remember way back in 2016 when I first heard the term digital nomad and decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I started reading people’s blogs and watching YouTube channels dedicated to the lifestyle. 

I found forums and communities online filled with people who were location independent, and I remember looking at them like superheroes.

What did these people know that I didn’t? How were they able to figure out all of these issues that I was facing that stood between me and location independence?

I put the lifestyle on a pedestal. 

It wasn’t until I finally became location independent and looked back when I realized how difficult I had made things. All the people I looked up to were just like me, they all had the same insecurities and fears, they had just worked on things longer than I had and had taken a chance.

Becoming location independent is just like anything else in life. It’s no different than becoming an accountant or a teacher or a doctor. You just need to work at it long enough to make it sustainable.

Don’t make things harder than they need to be.

6. Find a tribe!

If you take just one lesson to heart from this post, make it this one! Finding a tribe, or a group of people that have the same interests and goals as you is one of the most important things I did for myself.

Early on in my location independent journey, I joined a group called Location Indie. It’s an online group that connects people who want to become location independent together and gives them the training needed to make it a reality. Some of the people I met in this group have become life long friends, mentors and teachers.

It’s a great way to find people to push you and keep you moving towards your goals and it can even be a great place to find clients or help for your business. It doesn’t matter what group you join whether it’s Location Indie, a forum, or even a Facebook group, just find your people!

7. You don’t have much time with people, so make it count

When you live in one city year-round it’s easy to think that you have all the time in the world. You can always see your friends and family because they’re not going anywhere. Being a digital nomad changes things a little.

People are always moving and changing locations. You might meet someone in Budapest that you really hit it off with but in the back of your mind you know that they are taking off for Mexico at the end of the month, and that can make forming strong friendships very difficult.

However, the benefit is that you become very conscious of the finiteness of time. Since becoming a digital nomad I now have a much bigger appreciation for the time I do get to spend with friends and family. I know that I don’t have all the time in the world with them, so I make a much stronger effort to see all the people I love and be as in the moment as I can.

On the other hand, you can actually use your new-found location freedom to see the people you love as much as you want. I have written before about how location independence allowed me to spend more time with my grandma and made it possible for Sarah to celebrate her dad’s birthday with him.

When you meet someone new that you hit it off with, make a plan to meet up somewhere else in the world. Put it in your calendars and actually make the effort to make it happen. Do is every time you meet a new friend and you will soon find yourself constantly meeting up with friends around the world, and that’s one of the best things about this lifestyle.

8. The 10th country isn’t as great as the 1st

Mark Manson was recently on the Empire Flippers podcast and in the interview he talked about the diminishing return of travel. He talked about how the first few times he traveled it was the greatest experience of his life. 

Everything was new, every color and sound was exciting and something to explore, but as he traveled to more and more places he lost that feeling. Soon, traveling just didn’t really give him the same excitement it did the first time.

This is something I’ve experienced as well. The more you travel the more you will find that it’s just not as exciting as it used to be and it just won’t be as rewarding as it was at first. I used to want to visit every country in the world, and this is the reason why that is no longer a goal of mine.  

At this point, it’s ok to say that you’ve had enough. It’s ok to slow down and start going back to the places you enjoyed the most and spend more time there. In my opinion, that’s what location independence is all about, to allow you to be where you want to be the most, not necessarily to be everywhere.

9. Making money online doesn’t mean you are free

This is going to piss some people off but it needs to be said. Just because you make money online doesn’t make you “free”. There are tons of people who call themselves digital nomads but make just enough money to allow them to live in Thailand. That’s not freedom, that’s just as bad as being stuck in a cubicle, you’ve just changed the location.

I believe that people can do whatever they want, but I don’t think that making $800 per month is a sustainable way to live. Sure it’s enough for you to live relatively well in Asia but what if one day you want to have a family, or you want to go back to your home country? What if you get sick or a loved one gets sick and you need to go home?

If you want to be truly location independent you should strive to make enough money to live comfortably anywhere in the world. Don’t get me wrong, moving to a place like Thailand and using the location arbitrage to allow you to work on your business is a great idea, it’s what I did, but don’t make it your end goal.

It’s just not sustainable.

10. You can make money doing anything

If there is one thing I’ve learned since I became a digital nomad, it’s that you can truly make money doing anything.

I’ve met people who make thousands of dollars a month playing video games, people who make a good living editing scientific papers written in English by Chinese scientists, and I’ve met more than one person making a good living playing poker online.

What I’m trying to say is that we live in a world where no matter what your skill or interest is, there is probably someone out there that will pay you for it.

11. You’re only as good as your tech

This year I experienced my first real tech malfunction. My laptop just didn’t turn on one day.

The first thing I experienced was panic. What about all the work I need to do today? What about all my files and interviews I had recorded for my podcast? All other things on my agenda for the day were immediately erased and instead, I spent my day going from computer repair shop to computer repair shop trying to find some sort of tech wizard that could bring my computer back to life.

The day ended with a new Macbook, which was a lovely surprise expense. 

Take care of your tech, without it your world will stop to function. You can’t work from anywhere in the world if your tech doesn’t work right. This is another reason why it’s so important to have some type of buffer or even a fund dedicated to replacing or upgrading your tech.

On this topic, I really like what Dan Andrews from the Tropical MBA suggests – save up around $3000 and put it in a completely separate bank account in case of a tech emergency. By his estimates, that’s enough money to replace all your most important tech is there is some sort of accident or something gets stolen.

12. Being a digital nomad is hard

No matter what you do for a living one thing I hear again and again from digital nomads is about how hard it is. Often times you are away from family and loved ones for long periods of time which can make things lonely.

When you work online and your office can be any place you want it can be very tough to find work-life balance. You can find yourself working long hours and it doesn’t make it any easier that you will likely work with people from across the globe so you need to work weird hours or stay up late at night to hop on a team call.

It can also be logistically taxing because you’re living a lifestyle the world isn’t yet made for. You need to find a new Airbnb or apartment every few weeks or months, you need to plan your travel to those new locations, and you need to deal with all the legalities of going to a new place like visas. On top of that often times insurance agencies aren’t quite sure how to handle you so you need to find a way to ensure that you are protected no matter where you are in the world.

I’m not saying all this to complain, I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle for anything, but these are all things I didn’t think about back in 2016 and it’s good to know what you can expect on the other side.

To wrap things up…

I remember being on a call with my friend Travis and telling him how stressed out I was. I was working tons of hours and couldn’t really figure out how to start my own business. It was like nothing I tried was working. 

Travis smiled at me and said:
“I remember being exactly where you are today a few years ago. But if there is one thing I could go back in time and tell myself it would be to relax, and enjoy the ride because it will turn out ok. And I know it will turn out more than OK for you, so you might as well enjoy the ride.”

That has stuck with me ever since.

Today, I look back at my life from a few years ago and I can’t believe how much I’ve grown and how things have turned out. My life is better than ever, but I spent so much time stressing and worrying about things. All that stress and worry clouded the other experiences I should have been focusing on. So in the end, Travis was right, things have turned out just fine since then, so he is likely right about the future as well.

That’s not to say that my journey is over, far from it, but now I earnestly try to enjoy the ride.

Like I told my friend Jen a few days ago “Enjoy the suck!”

One day you will be passed this and you will look back on the struggle fondly, the same way I look back fondly at the times Sarah and I didn’t have enough money to eat at a restaurant so instead, we would pack sandwiches.

As long as you are working on something you are passionate about, and can honestly say you are giving it your best, then you will make it. So you might as well enjoy the ride.

Happy Holidays!

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