This post is for the friends, family, acquaintances, roommates, partners, and other people that have a digital nomad in their lives. It’s not meant to speak for them or digital nomads as a group, but hopefully will help you understand where they’re coming from a bit better.
I get it — you’re a well-meaning person. You’re of at least average intelligence. Someone in your life has just told you they’re becoming a digital nomad, or they want to become one. What is a digital nomad?, you might ask — a totally fair question. If you’re asking a question to learn about the lifestyle or because you’re genuinely curious, nomads are happy to answer (generally). Some questions are inappropriate to ask or are asked with malicious intent, and some nomads will roll their eyes or hesitate in answering. The answer may not be any of your business, or a digital-nomad-to-be doesn’t have a solid answer for it (which opens the door to someone trying to talk them out of it). The assumptions or presumptions made in a question are telling, as well. I know you’re curious, so let’s explore some of the most common questions.
How do you make money / how will you make money?
Of all the questions on this list, this is actually the fairest to ask. You might be traveling a lot, but work is a natural part of the digital nomad lifestyle. There are a ton of ways digital nomads can make money, and a lot of them are jobs that didn’t exist 20 years ago. We get paid for doing or creating something, not just for sitting at a desk. I highlight over 100 ways digital nomads make money in my book, Becoming a Digital Nomad, and there are even more out there.
So if it’s fair to ask, why is on this list? The unspoken assumption behind the question is that nomads haven’t thought about this. If they haven’t mentioned it, then sure, fair question. Also, how I make money may not be any of your business. I’m under no obligation to share details of my job / business / position with anyone.
How do you actually make money?
While the previous question was a reasonable one to ask, this one isn’t. You might make money by going into an office, pushing papers around, working with colleagues, whatever. If I’ve given you an answer, it’s the one I’ve chosen to share. There isn’t a ‘secret’ way I’m making money, and if there is, I’ve decided not to tell you.
How do you work remotely?
Another fair question — and it’s different for everyone. For some, it’s a matter of finding a coffee shop with good wi-fi, a co-working space, or for setting themselves up where they’re staying. It’s also going to be different in different locations — some cities / countries have plenty of co-working spaces. The presumption in some people’s minds, however, is that it’s not work if it’s not done in a work-type setting. How people work in 2019 is a far cry from how people worked 50 years ago.
How long do you plan to be a digital nomad?
Some people do start out with a specific time limit, or choose to give it a try before committing. Both are fine (and the book talks about to try out the digital nomad lifestyle in the Nomadus Interruptus section). Very few people become digital nomads for life, but this question presumes a nomad is coming back in a known period of time. Plans can and will change — especially if you end up loving the lifestyle.
You must be living the dream!
No, it’s not technically a question, but it’s a statement that’s meant to invite a response. I am living the dream, by many people’s standards and definitions, but it’s still rainy and cold outside. There are groceries I need to get, this client’s impossible to please… There are always cons to the pros, and sometimes this statement is meant to indirectly draw attention to them.
How do you find places to live?
How do you find places to live? You use Google, look up offerings on Airbnb or a similar site, or maybe find a local co-living space. Facebook groups are quite useful in finding rentals for some. Others prefer to arrive, book a hotel for a few days, then scout the town on foot and make an offer.
Don’t you miss your friends / family / pet?
The digital nomad lifestyle is a choice, and like any choice there are always consequences. True friendships last, and the internet makes it easier than ever to stay connected to anyone almost anywhere in the world. Friends and families can also travel to see the nomad in their life (especially if the nomad is able to show them around!).
How do you actually work while at home? I’d be so distracted…
Well, I’m not you and you are not me =)
The concept of working from home has been around for decades now, and as such millions of people have set things up in plenty of ways to enable work with fewer distractions. It’s part of the lifestyle change — for some people, they’ll be in ‘work mode’ during certain hours of the day. Others will separate the work area from the rest of the house by putting all work-related stuff in a separate room.
When will you come home / get a real job / get married / settle down / put down roots / buy a house / start a family?
Maybe tomorrow. Possibly never. It’s my choice to make, not yours.
The presumption here is that you simply must do these things, or else you’re bad, irresponsible, or just not planning to be an adult. The simple fact is that these are large decisions with long-term implications, and a happy life does not necessarily require a spouse, house, or kids. If you choose to return to your home country, there’s no reason to return to the same city — especially if other cities have more to offer.
To be clear, I am married, and I wouldn’t trade my spouse for anything in the world. I’m much happier with her in my life, and I’m a better person because of it. Not everyone wants to be legally bound to another person for life, however, and not everyone should be.
Settling down? Why, am I out of countries to visit? Personally, I’ll probably reach a point where it’s too physically challenging to move around. When that point comes, we’ll find a more permanent place to live and take trips from that home base.
Put down roots? What am I, a tree? If you choose to settle down or put down roots, more power to you. Seriously. Communities grow when people are there to care for them. Roots can prevent a person from truly being the best they can be, because even the biggest city in your country can’t necessarily provide the right opportunities.
Buying a house is a major financial decision, one that too many people make without serious thought towards their long-term future. That it ties you down both geographically and financially (gotta pay that mortgage) are two big red flags for most would-be digital nomads. There’s less benefit than you think in owning these days, especially where prices are already at their historic high, and real estate can no longer relied upon to magically keep rising in value.
Starting a family presumes a person would be a good parent (and more than a few wouldn’t be) and that the couple agree on how to raise them, among many other things.
With most of these questions, ‘tradition’ is too often used as a excuse to maintain the status quo. It’s your choice to follow it, or respect it while going your own way.
Isn’t being a digital nomad just a long vacation?
The presumption here, ‘a long vacation’, implies someone is going away as a vacation, and is ultimately returning where they came from. This presumption may come from trying to fit what you’ve learned about the digital nomad lifestyle into your old frame of reference.
Digital nomads have plenty going on beyond simply sightseeing in a new place, since working and living in a place is much different than being a tourist on vacation.
Don’t you have a real job?
How quaint. The nature of work has changed just a teeny bit since the cubicle was invented in the 1960’s (a creation hated by its own creator, ironically). Today’s information-based jobs rarely require a worker to be in the same office — or even the same time zone — as their co-workers. It’s a different story if you have to physically touch / feel something, of course.
Real jobs are those that bring in real money. I do work that pays me to do it. I don’t have to go to a building with other workers, follow a dress code, or deal with an out-of-touch boss in the process.
So you just… travel and work anywhere you want?
Yep! Well, maybe not anywhere — but where I choose to. Making a choice to live in, say, New York, also means making a choice to make more money. Making a choice to live in a more rural area also means making a choice to be further from a ton of restaurant options or slower internet speeds. Again, there are consequences you accept when you make a choice.
OK, but where do you live?
I live where my stuff is, and that changes on a regular basis. Home is where the wi-fi connects automatically. Most people’s frame of reference when it comes to ‘home’ is a more-or-less permanent place. The frame of reference for a digital nomad is more mobile.
Where are you going next?
This is a pretty fair question, but if the answer isn’t ‘home’, more than a few people that ask this question find themselves disappointed.
Some nomads like to map this out well ahead of time, while others will go somewhere new because they got a great deal on a flight. The UN recognizes 193 countries, so even if you decided to only visit half of them for a month each, it would take you several years to enjoy them all.
My wife and I personally look to neighboring countries, with considerations for the quality of life, the climate we’d be living in, and so on. Flights are the most expensive way to get from A to B in most cases, so where a bus / train is available we’ll take those instead.
Why do you move around so much?
For most people, a tourist visa dictates how long you may stay in a given country. Residency visas, business visas, educational visas, or other permissions to live somewhere can take more time and be harder to get. While it greatly varies by country and nationality, the average tourist visa grants 3 months or less to visitors. If you choose to be a full-time digital nomad, that means you’re probably going somewhere new at least 4 times a year.
What are you running away from?
A boring life, a predictable future, or an underpaying job are all possible answers. Some nomads focus on what they’re running toward: a life of their own making is an awesome thing to choose.
What do you miss about home?
Most digital nomads will miss something from home or where they’re from. Food, family, and friends are some of the most common answers. Their choice to be a nomad is also a choice that accepts they’ll miss those things. For some, that makes coming home that much sweeter — don’t be surprised if a nomad’s first request is to revisit a beloved local restaurant!
It’s worth remembering, of course, that plenty of brand-names are available worldwide. I’ve yet to find myself too far from a Coke or some potato chips. Some specific brands may be hard to find, so you’ll want to make a choice to spend some time and find them or try the local brands instead. It’s part of the exploration and discovery process.
Isn’t it dangerous in [insert city here]?
Have you checked the stats for your own city recently?
Yes, some cities or neighborhoods are dangerous, while many others only look rough for one reason or another. It’s easy to assume something is dangerous because it’s unfamiliar, or because the only time you’ve heard about it in the news is when something bad happens there.
Yes, some areas are bad for tourists, either because of scammers or people looking to take advantage of a foreigner’s lack of knowledge. The response is simple: knowledge is power. Know what areas are best avoided by researching or listening to locals you trust. Avoid touts that approach you, and be able to calculate how much a thing costs anywhere you go.
Standard street smarts go a long way, wherever you are in the world: look like you know where you’re going, be aware of your surroundings, and avoid being visibly drunk.
Can you drink the water / eat the food?
Two words: Flint, Michigan. That’s the case that’s gotten the most press in recent years, but plenty of reports have shown tens of millions of Americans are exposed One 2017 report claimed up to 63 million Americans — almost 1 in 5 — had been exposed to something toxic or unhealthy in the water.
No, tap water is not universally safe around the world — but it’s also a pretty quick and easy thing to figure out before you arrive. Most developed countries have figured out how to provide clean water to most of its citizens, and with a few exceptions, countries that haven’t figured this out aren’t great fits for the digital nomad lifestyle.
The food may be foreign and different, but it’s going to be fine. Being spicy is one concern, but only a small percentage of foods require caution. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, have Celiac disease, or are picky about what you eat, exercise your usual precautions and ask questions. Pick up a guide to asking the specific questions in the local language (these are free, printable cards for Celiac travelers, as one example). Plenty of familiar foods can be found almost anywhere you go, and many foods are packaged in similar ways across the globe.
I wish I could do that…
What’s stopping you? The knowledge is right here. Sometimes, the biggest impacts on your life come down to whether you’re willing to take an uncomfortable step to pursue happiness.
Aren’t you scared?
You can’t live life being constantly scared of what might happen. You can’t wait until all the lights are green before going through the first one. Yes, there’s always going to be a fear of what’s different or unknown, and a lot of people let that fear stop them. Fear can be dealt with and managed, just like stage fright, a fear of public speaking, or telling someone you love them.
What will you do for retirement?
What’s retirement? By the time I hit my mid-60’s some 30 years from now, Social Security in the US may not be in a position to fund anything for me.
No, I don’t have a 401k, or stock options, or a retirement account. People with ‘stable’ jobs doesn’t always / necessarily have those things either. I’d rather live the life I choose now while I can then hope I’m still physically able to do stuff 30 years from now.
How was your trip?
Because as we all know, several months of incredible experiences across multiple countries can easily be summarized into a tweet-sized description. Try not to be surprised if the response is ‘good’, ‘great’, ‘incredible’, or something similar. How much time do you have? =) Your interest level is important too, but you’re not about to be bored listening.
It can be surprisingly hard to volunteer information about our trip because there’s often a ton of things we’d love to share. If you’re genuinely curious, it really helps to ask specific, but open-ended, questions. A sample:
- What was your favorite meal?
- How did you like the local food?
- Who was a cool person you met?
- Where did you get drinks?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to one simple request: don’t assume or presume anything about the digital nomad lifestyle. Traditions and traditional values may have worked for you, your parents, your grandparents, and everyone else you know… but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. A nomad-to-be has spent weeks and months ensuring this is the right choice for them, and your physical / emotional support is more helpful than you know.