Have you been tempted by a lifestyle that allows you to travel all year long while earning money? Has the pandemic allowed you to embrace remote working for the first time? Fabienne Fong Yan shares her experience to help new digital nomads feel more connected to the real world.
In 2015 I quit my 9-5 (which was more like a 9-8) in Paris. Four years as a consultant in a social media agency gave me just enough credit, experience and contacts to go freelance right away. It wasn’t long before I realized the place I worked from didn’t matter, as long as I could deliver as quickly as time differences made possible. But the lifestyle can also have a certain number of pitfalls, which I needed to learn to navigate.
Find a sustainable rhythm of work
One of the most important challenges encountered while working remotely and changing places often, is the absence of boundaries. At first, the flexibility in schedule and location can be intoxicating. Few things are more enriching than hopping from one community to another, listening to new stories and meeting travelers from all over the world. You become a social butterfly, and the travel community a vast field of flowers.
During my first months of nomadism, I was so elated by the newness of it all – and the freedom! – I almost forgot I needed time and focus to deliver proper work. But reality soon reminded me I couldn’t afford the same rhythm as people who are traveling just for a holiday. Even on the other side of the world, clients are waiting for your work so it’s essential to get the right work-life balance while on the move.
I also learned rapidly that spending days in remote areas should be ruled out. I once found myself making client calls and attempting Google document updates from an almost disconnected hostel at the foot of the Machu Picchu, Peru. You can get away once, twice, maybe three times with poor Wi-Fi excuses… but the fact is that you’re not on holiday, so the wise choice remains to work from cities with Wi-Fi that actually connects and allows you to be an efficient professional.
Choose a base-city that makes you grow
I used to change countries every month, sightseeing and meeting deadlines all at once. Over time, I felt growing fatigue, workload stress and the frustration of mismatching schedules with other travelers. I was never long enough in one place to make friends, and never available to fully connect with other tourists on a trip. Eventually, I came to consider choosing a base-city instead of being constantly on-the-go.
Material considerations are basic criteria when it comes to electing a base-city. But it should also be able to nourish you enough so you feel safe socially, creatively and professionally. For me, Berlin was the one. For the first time in 18 months, having my own room was a relief from the continuous pressure of having my whole life tucked in a 40-liter backpack. As I was moving in with two close friends, the familiar environment also swept away the looming threat of loneliness.
Once settled – even temporarily – it is easier to grow professionally: as soon as you stop worrying about where you’re going to sleep the following night, you inevitably make more time to focus on your skills, take better care of clients, meet like-minded project-makers and fuel your productivity.
On the other hand, the choice of a base is not supposed to keep you from moving. When I found myself in Hanoi years later, there was not a month without a trip outside the city or to another South-East Asian country! All in all, a city would be a good base for digital nomads if it supports them into becoming better professionals and happier travelers.
Foster meaningful human connections, virtual and real
Maintaining relationships while traveling long-term is perhaps the most challenging endeavor of all. That said, I have found over the years that one way to foster stability is precisely to learn how to take care of these relationships despite the distance. Technology and instant messaging are not only a remote worker’s tools, they are also the best way to communicate regularly and clearly.
Your strength to go chase your dreams in faraway lands will be reinforced if reminded that some people will make a home for you at theirs.
Read more: Why you should travel solo while in a relationship
Make space for the unexpected
The flexibility essential to the digital nomad’s lifestyle makes it easier to embrace opportunities, so embrace it! My plan never was to stay in Hanoi when I first landed. I had a 30-day visa and was going to drive on a motorbike from north to south like most backpackers. But I never made it south. Instead, I let the city and people surprise me. Days turned into weeks and I ended up moving into a house, co-founding a small business in tourism and integrating into one of the most fascinating communities: the residents of the infamous Hanoi Train Street.
It is true that we never know what life has in store, but most of all, we never know what kind of surprises an open and flexible mindset can bring, especially while traveling. Opportunities will come from the country you’re in, provided you’re ready to receive them. You can help that with a set of basic rules: learn some of the language, observe and stay humble in front of traditions and habits, endeavor to make friends with locals, ask them to subtitle what’s going on for you. With that curiosity-driven mindset, you multiply your chances to find a real life community.
Work with others to bridge cultural gaps
When I met Thao, the young Vietnamese woman who created the first coffee shop on Hanoi Train Street, her project resonated with me so much that our friendship hatched a partnership. She took great care of introducing me to our neighbors, their habits and taught me how to behave in the tight community of such a special street. The help of a friend willing to overcome not only the language barrier but also the cultural gaps is invaluable.
At first, the residents would say hello suspiciously. But persistence pays. One day, the grandmother living next-door invited me to eat. The next, our younger neighbor gave me her one-year old son to watch while she was cooking. And from then on, they all started to give me food. “If you want to keep somebody close, feed them well,” Vietnamese people say. And I have been well fed.
Sometimes, all your travel plans can collapse with only one encounter. Yet, this is maybe the most important lesson I have learnt as a digital nomad: don’t hold on too hard to the move, for sometimes the most valuable journey happens within – as you slow down and surround yourself with people willing to build bridges for and with you.
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This article was originally published January 2020 and updated October 2020.