A hard truth of digital nomad life

For the past few months, I’ve spent time in online communities geared towards frequent and long-term travelers, many of which promote the coveted digital nomad lifestyle. A digital nomad, simply put, is someone who is location independent and uses technology to perform their job, in theory, abandoning the more “corporate” 9:00-5:00 grind.

Social media has a tendency to glamorize the digital nomad lifestyle, portraying people working from beaches in Southeast Asia or lavish European lofts. Living the dream? Arguably, yes, given the freedom and flexibility to work from wherever you want and work whenever you want. Though, as often as I’m seeing staged social media posts showcasing Monday’s new, exotic work locale, I’m observing some troubling narratives. The personal experiences shared by many digital nomads in these online communities is what sparked my interest in exploring the phenomenon of escapism in the digital nomad world. 

We need to accurately portray the digital nomad lifestyle

Scrolling through posts written by frequent and long-term travelers, I’ve noticed patterns in motivations for travel, a number of which are rooted in anxiety, depression, lack of fulfillment and a general desire to transcend one’s current reality, often viewing digital nomadism as an escape route from life’s troubles.

While I certainly believe in the healing power of travel, not needing a reason to travel and the need to abandon a situation that isn’t serving you, labeling digital nomadism as the solution to one’s problems is dangerous and misleading. I write this article neither to discourage travel nor the digital nomad lifestyle itself, rather, I’d like to see more online communities and social media outlets sharing the realities of digital nomad life. 

As a frequent and long-term traveler myself, I, most humbly, have a few thoughts to share:

Stop making travel a competition

I can’t help but notice an Internet trend towards posting the number of countries a person visited in a year, month, or week, even by X age.

Having travel aspirations or goals is honorable, but it doesn’t need to be a competition. Attempting to one up one another by aiming to visit more countries in less time or taking more colorful, bold selfies, we not only devalue our own experiences, but also the experiences of others.

By getting sucked into the competition, I believe we share more about our travel by the numbers and less about the important lessons learned through our travel experiences (e.g. What conscious or sub-conscious biases did you confront? How did you connect with the local community in a meaningful way? Was it difficult to travel sustainably?, etc.)

Recently, I stumbled upon an article written by Bani Amor. If you have traveled in the past or plan to travel to another country in the future, you need to read and reflect on this article. She presented, what many may consider, some uncomfortable and inconvenient truths about our travel patterns, challenging us to think about: “Whose voice do you value in trip planning and research?”; “Where and how do you spend your money while traveling?”’ and “How do you travel without being another fucked up tourist?”

Don’t just take, give!

While I won’t dig deep on this topic in this article, it’s certainly worthwhile to mention as I believe it’s not talked about enough in the digital nomad space. It’s also something I’m trying to be more cognizant of as I travel, meaning, how can I contribute and connect in a thoughtful and sustainable way when I travel. 

Paris Marx wrote an article via Medium.com that really resonated with me by shedding a much needed, critical eye on the digital nomad and “Do What You Love” movement. To quote the article directly, “People who feel “liberated” from space have no stake in improving the space around them. To them, local communities are as valuable as co-working space. Digital nomads are far less likely to work towards positive local change, fight for the rights of disadvantaged peoples, or halt the gentrification that displaces long-term residents — to which they usually contribute — because those issues don’t affect them.” Furthermore, “the ‘Do What You Love’ movement begins with privilege and ends with individual success. It ignores programs designed to promote collective wealth and well-being in developed societies”. 

This leaves me to ponder a few questions:

What would be the implications of more digital nomads investing in improving the space around them?

How would the digital nomad storyline change and influence the way travel is viewed in online communities and social media outlets?

Would the mental and social health of digital nomads change in any way?

Keep some sense of normalcy

If you’re already experiencing anxiety, depression, or unhappiness, for instance, don’t expect that by merely hopping on a plane, those conditions or states of mind will magically resolve themselves.

In fact, I believe that uprooting yourself and moving to a new place with, presumably, little to no local support system will exacerbate one’s problems, especially in cases of solo travel. That said, equipping yourself with the tools and resources necessary to maintain mental, physical and social well-being while traveling can be helpful. 

For those of you who are trying to avoid routine when traveling, I share your affection for spontaneity and generally unplanned adventure, but I assure you, you will crave at least some sense of stability as at a certain point the inevitable transportation snafus, eating out for most meals, familiarizing yourself with your surroundings, and everything in between, will quickly lose its novelty.

Just because you want to enter into full on vacation/indulgence mode doesn’t mean your mind and body are along for the ride.

The following is in no way intended to be a comprehensive guide, rather, a few things to think about when traveling:

Define your baseline

Ask yourself, “what does my “normal” mental, physical and social routine look like if I wasn’t traveling?”.  If you don’t have one, think about putting one together!

Try to identify and prioritize what you need to focus on most to maintain a good sense of health and well-being. If possible, do some research in advance to find out what health and wellness services will be available to you and work to incorporate those things into your travel.

Physical

-Sweat (at least a little) every day: find a gym/fitness center where you are (it’s actually a cool way to observe the locals’ lifestyle, believe it or not) – or – take advantage of your natural environment (e.g. go for a hike, swim, etc.)

-From the hospital to a functional medicine specialist, get oriented with local health and wellness services and learn your payment options (e.g. is travel medical insurance right for you?).

-Make sure you’re getting enough rest and brush up on ways to minimize jet lag

Mental

-For regular medication use, make sure you have a full supply of your prescription ready before you go. If possible, before you set out on your journey, try to identify the equivalent prescription options overseas in case you run out, it gets lost, etc. and find out where you can fill the prescription. 

-If you want to keep regular appointments with your therapist, look into some e-counseling options to see if they may work for you

-Find some quiet time amid the chaos. Meditation is worthy of incorporating into your daily routine. If you don’t know where to start, try a guided meditation app

-Think about taking a social media hiatus. If you find you’re someone who struggles with FOMO (fear of missing out) or tend to get caught up in self-comparisons, taking a break from social media may alleviate the pressure to capture every moment and stay up-to-date 

Social

-Keep up with your people!  You don’t have to lose touch just because you’re overseas. Scheduling voice or video calls with friends and family via WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. are great, free ways to connect despite (literally) oceans between you

-Put yourself in situations where you are doing things that you enjoy and bring out your best self. You’re bound to meet like-minded people that share your interests. Meetup.com, Facebook’s events section, and talking with locals are great ways to learn about events in your area on a given day/night.

Above all, resist the urge to view travel as a “check the box” list. Abandon the self-imposed pressure to do and see everything. Honor yourself and your feelings. 

You have nothing to prove and you don’t need to be anyone’s hero!

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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