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Opinion:What’s the Deal with Digital Nomads?

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole ‘digital nomad’ trend that’s been going on lately.

It might not be so evident to those who don’t look to blogs as a source of travel inspiration, but there are literally hundreds of young people who have tried to quit their day jobs + taken the risk of becoming a full-time traveller. 

They live dreamy (well, on the surface, at least), seasonal lives: strolling through sunny Sweden during the summer months and weathering the winters bitter cold Koh Lanta, Thailand.


(all photos via one of my favorite travel-blogger-couples of all, Mr & Mrs. Globetrot)

Here’s some facts I’ve noticed about most of these digital nomads:

1. They’re typically 25-35. Most bloggers I follow fall into this age range; not quite fresh-out-of-college–but not yet at the age where they’re feeling the pressure to settle down + have kids. (Well, at least for the women. Do guys even ever get that feeling? Opinions appreciated).

2. They’re usually white, middle-class North Americans. Okay, this might be a stretch, since I don’t read blogs in French or Korean, so I don’t know if there’s also a digital nomad trend going on in those countries as well. But it seems that many of the major travel bloggers out fall into this socio-economic category.

3. Most of the major bloggers started blogging in 2010-2011. You see this in the big lifestyle + fashion bloggers as well. 2009, 2010, 2011 seemed to have been the golden era of blogging; before Facebook replaced, well, everything. There have been a few bloggers that started a bit later, but it’s getting harder and harder as more people attempt the digital nomad lifestyle, and people’s inclination to even read entire blog posts drastically decreases.

4. Most of these “digital nomads” rely on freelance writing projects for the bulk of their income. The biggest question with these people is always, How the heck can you “not work” and just travel around the world? These people do work–they pick up copy-writing gigs, write articles & guest blogs for major companies + magazines. I believe that most of them make only a bit of money from advertising on their blogs, but many of their trips are sponsored by tourism boards, various hostels + hostels, etc. If they get an assignment for a week-long trip in Italy, they pack up & go (ugh! unfair!). 

The only other careers that I could think of that support the digital nomad life aside from freelance writing: wedding photographer, graphic designer, filthy rich heiress with trust fund to blow.

5. They tend to spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia. Most of these digital nomads seem to spend a large bulk of their time in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: they don’t make a lot of money, and the cost of living per day is the lowest in Southeast Asia. Since they all work remotely from their laptops, all they have to do is have a wi-fi connection and a plug-in to make some $$$.  Also, though this surely couldn’t be a factor, I hear Southeast Asia has some pretty nice beaches.

6. In order to become a ‘digital nomad’, you need to be heavily invested in social media. The requirement: a strong blog site, a Facebook page, a Twitter, a Pinterest–all with tons of followers. The online reputation of a digital nomad is his or her income stream, essentially. It helps them get sponsored to go on trips; get advertisers for their blog, and pick up freelance writing gigs. There are loads of conferences that happens around the world (although seriously–after living in Asia for 2 years, I am now convinced that there is a conference for every. possible. thing one could think of) that help to connect these digital nomads and enable them to share ideas & make professional connections.


So, just how appealing is it to be a digital nomad? I think that my current personal + academic community (I go to a top-ranked university in Taiwan) can’t even comprehend that this kind of life exists. It’s not even that they would or wouldn’t approve. This kind of life is absolutely unthinkable. However, when I brought up the topic to my mom, she simply shrugged & said, It’d be doable for a year or two, but what then? I’ve definitely thought about being a digital nomad. There are so many inspiring posts on the web by digital nomads; variations on “I quit my boring-ass cubicle job and I’m gonna travel the fuck outta the world, YOLO”. 

I haven’t even gotten to the soul-sucking cubicle job yet, and here I am, thinking about whether I would want to do this digital nomad thing. I suppose it’s because I’m three years into university and I still have absolutely no idea of what I want to do with my life. What the fuck is up with that? Why can’t they just hand you a life plan along with your degree? I was supposed to graduate this past June; but since I took two years off post-high school to travel & volunteer, I’m still in university while all of my classmates have entered the workforce. I’ve been talking to many of them about their post-grad life, mostly with horribly Machiavellian motives– trying to judge their post-life maturity, you know, so I can make sure I’m not falling behind & on track and all that.

And so I’ve had coffee with people who I’ve seen post Facebook updates being all “OMG LOVE MY NEW JOB, JUST GOT HIRED AT XXX SUPER-HIP COMPANY YOU’D DIE TO WORK FOR”--and suddenly they’re telling me that they actually hate their job, and they pay out 75% of their salary on their rent, and, you know what, the 9-5 grind is actually killing themWhat the fuck is up with that?

So, that brings me back to these digital nomads–is it a viable escape from the 9-5 grind? They are the YOLO people: they get to go to Koh Phi Phi on whim to go snorkelling one weekend and get paid to go to Tuscany the next; their Instagrams make the masses weep with envy–but what about when they’re not so young-and-YOLO anymore? They’ll end up with hardly any savings, a huge blank on their resumes (aka, no chance in the competitive pool for high-paying jobs), maybe they’ll have a steady romantic partner–or they’ll have an equally broke romantic partner who they are truly, madly, deeply in love with and want to have kids with and buy a house with and settle down with but they can’t because


You know what I think of when I think of this dilemma? I think of Frodo, in Lord of the Rings. If anyone could epitomize YOLO, it’d be him, right? He could have stayed in his little hobbity hole and grown fat on cheese, but no–he was all, I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way. So he essentially goes on this insane adventure; sees all these lands & peoples & creatures he would have never seen otherwise, accomplishes this great task, and then he heads back to the Shire and everything is destroyed. (Note: If you don’t know this, it’s because you’ve only watched the movies (if this is indeed the case, be fully aware that you are a huge loser), because in the movies they totally cut that part out). So basically Frodo returns from this incredible journey; the Shire has been totally taken over by Saruman, the Party Tree is chopped down–and everything sucks! So then Frodo, Merry, Pippin & Sam have to fight a battle in the Shire in order to kick Saruman out & rebuild the Shire. And at this point, reading, you’re like yay! Now Frodo can return to the Shire and grow old, fat, and content with a hobbit wife. But that’s not what actually happens. because this is what happens: Frodo decides he can’t deal with living in the Shire anymore, because all the people that are around him have no idea what he’s been through. And so he sails away into the West with the Elves! 

This is all fine & dandy–but guess what–Valinor doesn’t actually exist and I can’t go there after my incredible YOLO-rific adventure like Frodo does. And this ‘digital nomad’ trend is too young for us to know what happens to these bloggers when they grow tired of the travelling life & attempt to move on. I mean–perhaps I’m just being overdramatic. Perhaps they can settle down into cushy, stable editorial jobs; or work for some adventure company in an office somewhere. But how would they feel? Would they just always be living in adventures past–would they be unable to deal with the inevitable pressures of having a family, having a job to support that family? Would they think they made the wrong decisions with they were young? 

Since this post has already reached Smaug-a-rific proportions, I’m going to save my extra thoughts for a later post. But what do you think? Is being a digital nomad worth it? Have you ever thought of being a digital nomad? 



  1. Hey Stephanie!

    A couple of digital nomads here 🙂 (since June ’12)

    I enjoyed reading your post. It is very wise of you to question everything and to not jump blindly on to a bandwagon like some do!

    I wanted to make a few points, as a couple of your assumptions about digital nomads were a bit different to how we see it. We have found digital nomads to be quite a wide spectrum of people. The typical 25yr old traveller who lives off writing gigs, earns hardly anything, is always on social media and is working from a beach is far from the reality of most.

    Really, all digital nomad means is somebody who does not have a permanent home and who’s income is earned from the internet. Like us, most digital nomads are actually business owners who only use the internet to manage their business and blog. There are many businesses now online, so there must be millions of online business owners. The only difference with being a digital nomad is that we choose to travel regularly (why wouldn’t you?) instead of staying in the same house for our whole lives.

    The way you described how others see this type of lifestyle and not being able to comprehend it – That is typical for most places. Me and Erin grew up on either side of the world, England and Australia and the views from both were exactly the same. It is hard for people to think outside what they have always known. For them it appears like we are living quite hippyish. For us we are just taking advantage of the fact that we don’t have to go to work at the same place everyday.

    Also, some people some how still have the mentality that working for yourself, as opposed to working for somebody else, is risky. Trust me, learning lots of skills that will enable you to earn an income for yourself and not being dependent on other people is a pretty safe decision. The fact that you do or do not choose to travel as you do this is irrelevant. It neither makes the decision more or less risky, but the travelling is the part they will think is weird!

    As for the future. We hear this quite a lot. “WHAT ABOUT YOUR FUTURE?” What will you do in three years?

    Well, if we decided to stay in one place that we liked for the rest of our lives then tbh nothing much will really change. We will just do our work from our house, or maybe a local coffee shop or library. We will still do the same kind of things in the day, go to the gym, meet up with friends. We will probably never get a job for somebody else – Even without travelling, the freedom of working on your own terms and not having to grind out a 8 hour working day is the best! Plus we struggle getting out of bed before 10am.

    Basically I just wanted to say that the type of digital nomad you are describing is unfortunately the one that usually fails after a while. I wouldn’t recommend going down that route, but that doesn’t mean you have to join the next 9-5 job that comes along and dismiss the idea all together.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Dave & Erin: I followed your comment to your website and it is an amazing resource! I had no idea that there were blogs that dealt with the digital nomad life so practically! I’ve been practically glued to your site for the past 24 hours, soaking up as much information as I can! Fascinating–thank you for being so open about your digital nomad lives!

      I agree with your point: if you are an internet business owner and can work remotely- why not travel & explore the world while you’re at it? There’s only two questions that I still have: It just seems that most internet businesses in general (and by extension, digital nomads) are confined to certain careers/skill sets that can be pursued remotely (graphic design, affiliate marketing & e-book writing, as you guys do; perhaps travel writing & photography). A commenter above (in my FB comments section)- has mentioned that he’s yet to see anyone who works in a more..interactive field and maintain the status as a digital nomad. Do you think that this would be possible; or that being a digital nomad necessarily means being in certain fields?

      My second question has to do with income: I suppose one can scrap the “travelling to exotic places”/digital nomad issue altogether and what it boils down to is: “Can you make as much money working for yourself as you would working for other people”? A more whimsical way to put it would be: “Do you have to sacrifice a part of your possible income in order to be able to wake up at 10 am every day?” Because if the answer is “no”, sign me up; I’m ready to work from home as well!! Of course, I know that the pay scale for a 9-5 job varies widely. But as an Asian-American, I see most of my peers pursuing high-paying corporate careers (investment banking, consulting, medicine) and perhaps that is one of the reasons I might be perceiving the gap between working for someone else and working for oneself to be larger than it really is. But to be honest; I look at their lives & know that while they have financial security & have tons of money to spare–life isn’t all about money; nor is it about being trapped in a cubicle and a job that wears you out.

      • At the moment I do see many digital nomads with similar skill sets I have to agree, but this is the type of freelancer work which you spoke about. A lot of them still work for other people.

        In regards to running a business, the skills needed would be completely dependent on what your business was. Then it would be more about asking yourself what you can personally offer the world and how you can turn that into a business and a liveable income.

        btw.. we didn’t have any of the skills that we use now when we first set off. We just saved up for six months while working and then just basically dived into the world and worked hard to figure things out for ourselves. I’m not sure if that is advice I should give to people, but it worked ok for us. The savings gives you the comfort of knowing you won’t ruin your life, the throwing of yourself into the world gives you the kick needed to start something great that you can be proud of.

        In regards to your second question, when you are travelling full time you have to think about income differently and have to think about it ‘relatively’.

        There is no average income to base ourselves off. For some months of the year we live amongst people where the average income for our age is around $70k-$100k, other months of the year it is in places where the average is more like $6k. (and everywhere in between)

        One of the more attractive ideas of the DN lifestyle that you will probably come across is the idea that you can continue to earn dollars while you are spending a much weaker currency. It is not unusual to be earning 10x the amount of money that you are spending in a month. This is what makes the ‘investment banking, consulting,..” static option less attractive as you often find these careers cause people to spend just as much as they earn as everything around them is expensive to maintain. This makes the difference very hard to measure.

        On top of that we are not on a fixed income. It changes every single month. We have no problem living in any country, but it just works out that sometimes we feel very rich and feel like we can buy anything and sometimes we feel not so rich. For me this adds to the diversity as we get to see life from different perspectives. I think a number of the problems in the world are caused by people not being able to see things from another person’s angle. Always feeling rich is not good for the soul I’m sure, it is a catalyst for big egos 🙂

  2. Stephanie,
    I have been traveling Internationally my whole life. I am a 63 year old “Digital Nomad” these days and retired. I would advise you to move slowly, as that path can also be a very lonely and unmotivated career wise at times. Some have become depressed and one even committed suicide recently because of being alone and other issues. On the other hand if you are adventurous and don’t mind a pauper’s lifestyle it can be fascinatingly rewarding. Meeting new people, experiencing new cultures and tasting new foods can be exhilarating. I would test the waters and try it slowly if you think you are a match. My primary suggestion would be to obtain a degree and employment in some area of International business that afforded you the opportunity to travel continuously on the company’s nickel, like I did. That way you have income and can have the Nomad experience to some degree. I am very lucky and have a wife who loves to travel also. Your longtime partner must have the same desires with regards to travel if you are to have a strong relationship. Best of luck on your decision.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Thanks for such a candid response! This is exactly why I am so cautious about the path: I know that there are times where being a constant traveller may seem glamorous and exciting; but I imagine that it can also be lonely–not only being physically alone; but knowing that you are walking an entirely different path that most people you know. I suppose that’s why there are many digital nomad communities starting up all around the globe; to provide support & companionship.

      I’m currently pursuing a degree in Business Management at one of Taiwan’s top universities; so I guess I’m already taking your advice into account! If you take a look at the FB comments above, I do mention that as a possible goal of mine: working for a global enterprise in a position where I can constantly travel on behalf of the company. I think that would be a good use of my schooling, as well as a chance to indulge in my thirst for exploration and adventure! I also speak Mandarin Chinese; so I am hoping that aids me in my search for such a job; I know that these opportunities are getting fewer with the rise of the Internet, video conferencing–etc. It seems that technology is replacing the need to send people out to different locations. (I hope it doesn’t!) I do indeed hope to find a life partner who also loves to travel; I think that would definitely be a “non-negotiable” factor. Anyway, we’ll see how both of these things turn out. Thank you so much for the valuable advice, Mike!

  3. Jeremy Blum says

    here are actually many digital nomads in taiwan who write about their travels in chinese – same in korea. but yeah, it definitely is a trend in the western world, especially with young americans. i’ve actually done the digital nomad thing for a while now, though i finally am “settled” in hong kong for the time being. i think it is definitely a way to personally experience a lot of the world and change your perspective, especially if you are just coming from college and need to take some time to figure out what you want out of life. it is doable to support yourself through freelance writing projects as well, but like you said in your post, successfully promoting digital nomad-esque writings on a blog and gathering a following on social media is WORK!

    essentially, i think that even though this kind of lifestyle sounds idyllic, eventually you do need to worry about things like cash and perhaps starting a family. if you can manage to develop a solid enough writing/photography career from your nomadic travels, then a digital nomad lifestyle can be a fantastic jumping block to a career in journalism at a travel magazine or a website, where you can basically do the same sort of writing but actually get paid for it. it’s really up to you and the power of what you establish on the internet. i’d say that twenty years ago, this sort of lifestyle was very hard to develop into a viable living, but now, thanks to the web, its a possibility! (and i’ve sort of done it myself, transitioning from two years in taiwan as a part time teacher/chinese student to now working at a newspaper in HK, still finding time to travel on weekends!

    i’d say that even though you dont yet know what you’re gonna be doing in the future, your blog is a great bit of work steph and you should def keep it up. this is the sort of hobby that you can eventually build into a moneymaking life

    see you next week btw


    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Jeremy–真的嗎?我都不知道!如果你有他們的網站,我想看一看!Right—I forgot to mention that teaching English was also another way to finance a digital nomad career–I’ve been learning so much about digital nomads that I’m going to do another post!
      By the way, CONGRATS on the newspaper job! Had no idea, can’t wait to hear about it!

      And glad that to hear that someone echoes my concern: although I read about a digital nomad who had a kid when he only had $450 in his bank account (he had $4,000 before, but he blew it on partying, etc on some Thai island!!!)–so I guess not everyone subscribes to the “financial stability before having kids” thing that we do. I wonder if its an Asian/Asian-American thing? Interesting topic for a post someday….

      Thanks for the encouragement, Jeremy! I do hope to make some money at a future point off of my blog and also transition into a travel writing career. This blog has already been great in getting me a few paid freelance writing opportunities–we’ll see where it goes, eventually! See you soon & we can talk more about it!

      • At the same time, 20 years ago there weren’t 100000000 people doing these jobs. I’ve been emailing magazines/editors for work. And the problem is, there are just so many people trying for the same jobs, it becomes like a huge submission process and contest. The digital revolution empowered everyone, but at the same time made you have to scream over a 10000000000 more voices to be heard.s

  4. Francis Chen says

    Hi, thank you for this post and thank you for trying to debunk the myth of the digital nomad. My only issue with being a digital nomad is that for many of them, they rely on a very narrow skill set or narrow types of professions. For example, I enjoy being a city planner, but I can’t necessarily do city planning for a city government in the US while being in Southeast Asia – there’s a lot of in person interaction that gets lost that is a big part of my job.

    While I definitely agree that international experience is a valuable part of a person’s life, I’d like to see more expats who blog about different types of careers (i.e. design, fashion, tech. marketing, business dev, software dev, policy, energy, sustainability, etc.) such that people can see what the process is like to pursue more broader career paths. Lots of people have different types of lifestyle choices, and each sort of career has its own type of lifestyle. The digital nomad is only one type of lifestyle, and I think it’s definitely possible (but harder) to pursue an international career without being a digital nomad.

    • Stephanie Hsu says


      I agree, I totally agree! The digital nomad life is definitely limited to certain kinds of careers; ones where you can work remotely; writing-based or graphic design-based. I’ve also heard that some travel bloggers get paid to speak at conferences, etc–where they would get to interact with tons of people, but I’m sure that’s not a very consistent income stream.

      I haven’t yet found any bloggers that happen to be digital nomads pursuing careers in fashion, policy, energy, etc.I’m sure there are at least a few, but perhaps they don’t blog, which is a shame!). Not saying that I could ever be her or remotely like her, but Gary Pepper Girl (the blog/brand name of Australian blogger Nicole Warne) could be considered a digital nomad who works in fashion; you can check out her site at http://garypeppergirl.com/. (But let’s be real; fashion bloggers are a whole different topic altogether).

      I do know that many some digital nomads pursue careers in digital marketing and graphic design, since those are careers that can be sustained remotely.

      I definitely know some friends in both the fashion & policy/sustainability fields who travel a TON as a part of their jobs; but they’re always still tied with a certain location & office. That’s also an option as well; if I got to travel at least half of the year, always to different places–I’d get international experience as well as a more consistent income stream.

  5. i’m going to say, the grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side. I’ve had people tell me they envy my travel life, at the same time, I personally feel I am SO FUCKING BROKE. barely scraping pay check to paycheck from what little the day job and the freelance jobs pay (if they pay 2-3 months later). anyhow, YOLO is quite true…. if you are under 30 and not greying in the hair worrying about the future. aiyah.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Sean Marc Lee, I gotta say–your photos make your life look soooo dreamy & perfect & idyllic (but maybe because you’re just that good of a photographer?)

      I appreciate your honesty; it’s refreshing and a valuable perspective for those who are considering going into freelance work. I was talking to another friend of mine; a film-maker, about this, and he mentioned that while it is killing him that he has to apply like crazy for grants and do so much paper-pushing to promote his film (it’s called “Under One Roof’ & is about the Mosuo people in China)–he doesn’t regret going down this path at all.

      Just wondering, do you agree that someone should have solid financial stability before having kids? Jeremy Blum and I were discussing this in the post above). I’ve always held it as an objective RULE, but maybe it’s something that is instilled in us as ABCs…?

      • Stephanie Hsu Well, solid financial stability is something not everyone can afford. I had the blessing of working full time non stop the last 8 years out of college before I moved here. One was consistent “perma-lancing” too. But that’s the reason why I am here. I simply got bored, burnt out. And now I find it tends to repeat itself in cycles. While I do have a day job and side jobs, I still simply feel lost and always wanting something I can’t grasp. And to be honest, the photography romance aside, I spend most of my time in front of a computer wrangling everything else that comes with photography (post, editing, social media, blah blah blah). And you get to points where you have to say yes to certain jobs because you really need the money and hate yourself for it. (ie, terrible corporate event coverage, party photos), and wondering why people who are terrible photographers are getting work but you arent. LOL.

        The concept of nomad sounds quite romantic. The main guy I assist for is always traveling for work for a month at time. And to be honest, his kids suffer. not from financial stability, but emotionally. that’s something that can’t be put in numbers or quantitative terms. I still remember as a kid when my mom traveled every month for weeks on end.

        Your filmmaker friend is right. It’s a journey we choose (albeit with hesitation), and it’s something we want to keep along the lines of how we see/want to do things. It’s not easy when people tell you just to you know, shoot wedding photos for money… prob the same kind of thing if someone told your friend to not make documentaries and instead make some hollywood rom com. It would be the equivalent to say if you were a travel writer living this nomadic life, and someone wanted you to write… technical copy for some computer company. But alas, at the end of the day, people need to eat.

      • Jeremy Blum says

        Steph, I’d say you need to at least have some sort of financial stability before you end up having kids, simply because having children changes you and your life in ways that you can never imagine. Once a person realizes that they’ve got to care for a life that they helped create, their priorities instantly change, and suddenly, a desire to travel around beaches taking Instagram photos will be replaced by the necessity of having to pay for school and all of those other things like diapers and baby formula. I’ve got a friend in HK who is single, in his early thirties, and lives a relatively good life teaching and doing freelance jobs in the city. His sister, who’s not much older than he is, came to visit him in HK a week ago, bringing her husband and two baby children with her, and they all stayed at my friend’s place. My friend was FLOORED at how much stress his sister endures. It’s tough to get through the day knowing that you’ve got two little one year olds who are going to cry at least four times throughout the afternoon and probably pee themselves after lunch. It’s hard to deal with that sort of burden if you only have 1000 USD in your bank account, so I really do think that in order to not make your life a living hell, at least some semblance of “security” is required in the first place – how much you need and can create for yourself is ultimately a question for you to decide.

        Like Sean said above, the life of a freelancer can be really unpredictable, especially in creative industries like writing and photography. Money really does become a realistic issue after a while, and I have friends in HK who have to do a lot of stuff that doesn’t really engage them in order to pay the bills. Freelance work that requires editing boring corporate videos or translating dry Chinese articles (which I’ve done) is not the most stimulating thing, but you gotta make money somehow. It’s funny, because the idea of quitting a nine to five job in order to follow your passion sounds really romantic when you’re still in school – but when you actually go out to do it, you realize that the amount of time you can devote to your passion has to be balanced with all of these boring little jobs you need to get through in order to pay rent, electricity, and water bills. And if you work at a big company, you get benefits like vacation days and health insurance. Try paying for health insurance on what can be a very measly freelancer’s salary, and it’s quickly a huge pain in the ass.

        In short, it’s a balance, and whether you can stick with it and deal with the sacrifices are up to you. If you can pull it off, or work full-time while freelancing and doing personal projects on the side (which is what I’m doing now), then the results can be really rewarding, but after having entered the working world, I don’t blame people anymore for sticking to their comfortable office jobs.

        • Barbara Saunders says

          I have no kids, so this is an observation from a distance. People have and support children in a vast variety of kinds of lives. Having a child when there’s only $450 in the bank is an extreme. I cringe, though, when I see people making themselves miserable because they “have to” have a house (not an apartment) or a minivan (not an old clunker) or send their kids to a private school with five-figure tuition. Newsflash: children can grow up in apartments and go to less than “great” schools (with the proper parental support for their studies).

          The irony: some of the adults I know who most genuinely enjoy their corporate careers are the children of relatively poor artists and schoolteachers. They don’t have the baggage of parents who feel they threw away their dreams on drudgery. They also seem to hold the whole thing much more lightly, and pursue corporate work they actually like without so much groveling and desperate conformity.

          • Stephanie Hsu says

            Barbara – I definitely agree! There’s this line of thinking amongst parents here in Taipei that American schools, for example, are so much better than Taiwanese schools and that kids can’t grow up in apartments here in Asia. But my sister, who is in middle school, is doing just that – and very happy about it!

  6. Hi Stephanie,

    This is such a useful post to read and the comments as well. I, like you, have considered the whole digital nomad lifestyle and spend ages looking at travel blogs and wishing that I could do what they do. This is a really helpful post in discussing the very real circumstances and difficulties (and joys) of pursuing it as a career path.

    I don’t work for a hip and trendy company, I work in a small fund management company that by lots of people’s standards is a very boring finance job. Personally I really like my job and consider myself very lucky. There are always days where I wish I wasn’t working at a desk, but I think whatever career path you choose those days of thinking “urgh” come for anyone. Like those mentioned above: if you’re waiting for your next pay cheque and struggling to pay the bills, or you have to take certain jobs that you don’t want to do to pay the bills, or even sitting down and editing for hours and promoting yourself. Basically what I am trying to say is that every single job has annoying/boring parts, because that is just the way life works. So it really depends what is important to you and what sacrifices you are willing to make.

    Personally I like the financial stability I have, and I’m lucky to work in a company that has good perks and isn’t soul destroying, and I like then having the money to go travelling – even if it is in allocated holiday times. But some people would hate my job. My advice is to just get as much experience as you can in all sorts of fields and see what suits you!

    It seems like with this blog you are developing the right skill sets for freelance work anyway. Either way I wish you the best of luck and look forward to following your year abroad (also I intend to visit, especially if you are in any of the Scandinavian countries!)

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Giulia, you always leave the most thoughtful comments! Thank you! And yes, please DO visit me when I’m in Sweden next year.

      And I have definitely thought about pursuing your career path before, especially as I’m studying business at NTU right now and they would LOVE to see all their students doing what you’re doing in finance. And you seem to have plenty of time to take vacations and travel a bit yourself (though, as you said, not long term), though I wonder if that’s a European thing, a bit? Or it’s more related to the type of job and the unique circumstances within that job? I feel like some of my friends working in the States NEVER have time to take vacation (or perhaps, they don’t have the travelling spirit, like you do!)

      Well, we’ll see what happens! I’ve been getting a few writing jobs here and there, but I’d definitely need to work a lot harder to make this into a full-time thing. It’s been so interesting to read income reports of other bloggers and realise that they’re making more than even some of my friends who just graduated and are working for big firms.

  7. yardsarelarge says

    If you want to see what the majority of digital nomads are going to end up like, just look at ‘English Teachers’ abroad after they get older than thirty-five or so.

    Yes, there will always be a few rock star digital nomads that make the bridge to a permanent career/income stream, etc. For the rest, just consider the life of the average 40+ year-old foreign buxiban teacher in Taiwan.

    (Keep in mind that ESL work is actually more stable and lucrative than most of digital nomad work.)

    One anecdote: I did take a ‘how to teach ESL course’ before I left my home country. Our primary teacher was lovely, a woman in her late 30s. She’d been doing ESL abroad for about ten years. Lots of stories, lovely woman.

    She was desperately trying to get out of ESL. She was married to another ESL teacher, was eight months pregnant, had no maternity leave, and desperately wanted to return to her home country. Only, she couldn’t. She and her husband didn’t have enough savings to buy a house back home, and their ten years ESL experience were near worthless in terms of employment prospects in their home country. They wanted to go back to raise their child near its grandparents, but couldn’t.

    They couldn’t find work back home. They couldn’t buy a house. My teacher was terrified about dental bills and was working a low-paid job with no maternity leave even though her baby was due quite soon and she was clearly exhausted at work.

    My two cents: If, by some luck, you manage to find a well-paid career that only requires an internet connection and a laptop, then there’s little to lose. If you’re a python or perl computer programmer, your clients don’t care where you’re working from. Likewise if you embark on some kind of career that simply involves a lot of international consulting (six months in country X, three months in country Y, all paid by your contracting company).

    However, the low-paid digital nomad life style (copy-writing, editing, etc) works well as long as you’re sure that what you want at 25 is exactly what you’ll want at 35, 45, 55, and onwards.

    If it isn’t, (and you do it for longer than one or two years) you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to pick-up the pieces of your working life and savings account, and try and switch careers.

    There are careers that involve a lot of international travel. If someone is looking to work abroad for the long-term, I’d definitely suggest picking a line of work that will *pay* them to travel, rather than simply a line of work that’s finagled to *allow* them to travel (for the cheapest amount of money possible).

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Thanks for the input! As I’ve been doing more research on these digital nomads, the more I realise how hard they have to work (for relatively little pay) and how much of it is totally based on circumstances/luck. As for the ESL route: as I live in Taiwan, I’ve come into contact with tons of English teachers, and I do agree that it seems like a bit of a dead-end route. I know many who have taught for a few years, and then moved back to their home countries to get jobs in corporations there; but the ones that don’t seem to move home and stay on tend to do so for years & years & years, not really growing professionally/opening themselves up to more opportunities. When you’re fresh out of college, ESL teaching is more lucrative than many of the “starting” careers out there (especially in this economic climate; speaking from a US point of view)–but the problem is that working a starter job has the potential to lead one to higher paying opportunities in the future, while ESL teaching—just remains ESL teaching.

      I’m currently working on another article where I go more in depth on what I’ve found in regards to digital nomad/travel bloggers’ monthly income, how much it compares to the starting salary of my friends who are now working in the states, compared to the salaries of my friends who are English teachers….hopefully I’ll be able to reach some kind of conclusion!

  8. I think the digital nomad lifestyle would actually be much easier if you’re running something like an e-commerce website, that doesn’t require constant updates like a travel blog does. The pressure to keep up and finish freelance writing assignments I think would suck a lot of the fun out of travel.

    Teaching English can be a great way to experience life outside the US, but it’s easy to get stuck in that and not have any other professional skills if you don’t actively develop them.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Ryan – I agree! I’ve read some pieces by travel bloggers that talk about how the uncertainty and deadlines of freelance writing made travelling much less fun for them. I think that’s why I’ve essentially abandoned the digital nomad route – although there still certainly an element of glamour to it! I think I’d now much prefer “job nomad-ing” – during my 20s, working for maybe 2 years each in a handful of cities that I really love. We’ll see how that works out!

  9. Hi Stephanie,

    I guess you would not call my ‘digital nomad’ experience the average (but what is average anymore anyway?) but I’d like to give you a different perspective.

    I’m a software engineer by trade, and I see (slow) travelling full time, especially solo as the prefect way to build a product business. I’m a part owner of a software company back home in Australia and I’m working on a couple of projects of my own while I travel, which are starting to get some traction. I only find time to do this because I am not surrounded with ‘real life’. I tend to spend about 60% of my time in Asia and 40% in Europe, but there’s something refreshingly productive about waking up in a bungalow in Koh Phangan, heading down to the beach for a swim, having some breakfast and a fruit shake and then sitting on my balcony with my laptop and one hell of a view.

    Just some food for thought 🙂

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Zen – thanks for sharing your story! This post was written quite a while ago and I’m actually beginning to learn more about the different ways that one can be a digital nomad.

      “I see (slow) travelling full time, especially solo as the prefect way to build a product business.” I do agree – why not travel, if you’re your own boss and the experiences may actually give you inspiration/motivation? You’d definitely have to be quite a disciplined, self-motivated person (as most entrepreneurs are, I assume). I’m just a bit confused by your use of the term “real life”. Does real life mean paying taxes and doing administrative stuff (you’ve got to do that wherever you travel); or does it mean certain “trappings” of first-world living (owning a car, buying a house, etc) – or does it mean, even – having a romantic partner (you mentioned that travelling solo, especially, as an effective way of building your business) and a group of friends that you have responsibilities towards? I personally couldn’t care less if I ever own a car again, or if I never buy a house. But as for the social/romantic aspect – I could certainly see myself being more productive without them, but I hardly could imagine that I would be happier/more content.

      • Hey, I just somehow stumbled upon this again but I thought I’d reply 🙂

        I definitely don’t mean cutting personal and romantic ties, loves and friendships are some of the most important parts of life I think. What I mean by ‘real life’ is things like commuting to and from the office, maintaining my apartment, going grocery shopping, owning a car, lazing in front of the TV or any manner of other trappings of every day life.

        For some reason I find that when I’m in a foreign location with new and beautiful surroundings, separating my “work” and “play” is a whole lot easier, like I can very easily say to myself that this morning I’m going to churn out a bunch of code and then in the afternoon I’ll go explore some place or meet a friend.

        In fact I think my relationships and friendships now are stronger than ever, because being everywhere forces me to cut the fat – I have the freedom to go and visit friends I have anywhere in the world at will, but I only see the people who I would fly to a city to meet. In the beginning this meant I had less friends, but now, after two years of “nomading”, I have more great friends than ever before and it amazes how often I happen to be in the same place as someone I can spend a day with in some random city.

        How has your life evolved in the past year?

  10. Hi Stephanie,

    This is a very sobering post and I love it. The other comments are also very insightful and all the Lord of the Rings references make it even better. Most people you read about make it seem like digital nomad life is the answer to your prayers, and when I am really resisting my desk job, I unfortunately sometimes buy into it. So reading your post has been very helpful.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time traveling and living abroad (in China mainly–first teaching English and then sent back there by my company in the US for a few years), as well as ‘stuck in a desk job’ (in China and the US), but has never actually lived this ‘digital nomad’ life, I have often considered trying it. The digital nomads I have met seem to live a hand to mouth lifestyle and in my experience as a freelance teacher and interpreter I have always had the same experience. I could see how it would be a cool way of life for a couple years when you are 20-24, but at least for me I would get tired of that way of living.

    I think some people in the comments made great remarks about how to achieve a lifestyle where you would be able to make more money, partially do what you like, and have a semi permanent base(s) around the world, while having enough time to enjoy traveling. I have some friends and relatives who have been pretty successful at this and is also what I aspire to.

    One of my friends is a professor who works online so he makes a great US salary and has houses around the world that he works between. A relative of mine has had great expat jobs in Asia and been able to make and save lots of money. Both of these people are in their forties though, so it does take time.

    If someone is just staring out, I think teaching English (this is what I did and yes I am biased) is a great option as basically any native speaker can do it in almost any country of the world and you don’t always need to be working like a digital nomad might and can enjoy your time traveling, learning languages, building other work skills in order to get that ideal expat job, etc. I have been able to parley these experiences into better paying jobs in the US and China.

    Just my thoughts.

  11. Being a digital nomad is what you make it. Not all or even the majority of digital nomads are starving freelancers. I know some that only want to make enough to get by, I know others that make over $100k+ usd a year and choose to travel as they build their business.

    There seems to be this misconception that if you are traveling you are missing out or your life is kind of on hold while you travel. It is actually more likely you will save much more money while traveling even though earning less than you would in typical day job because your expenses are so much lower.

    If you live in south Asia and make $2000 a month it is easier to save 50% of that due to living expenses (overhead) being so low. As oppose to making $3000 in America and living expenses are $2500+ a month due to the much higher cost of living.

    Many digital nomads start off doing freelance work to get out there, then transition into their own projects i.e. commerce stores, etc, which turn into full blown businesses. That they can run from anywhere in the world (usually place with lower cost of living) while at the same time saving more $$ than they would living in their home country. So if and when they choose to “settle down” they return home much further ahead than their counterparts who have been grinding away at a should sucking job for the last 5 years living in the same place not saving much of anything due to high cost of living.

    Yes some digital nomads tend to over glorify the lifestyle, but so do people working regular jobs by posting on fb” OMG i got a great job at XYZ cool company” then finding out they really hate their job.

    On the flip side people who choose not pursue being a digital nomad due to personal fears,enjoy reading about the downside of being a digital nomad as to validate their failure to pursue their dreams of becoming one.

    There is not one way to become a digital nomad. There are hundreds of ways, I know nurses that work all summer as a temp nurse and travel all winter, I know fitness trainers that train people by Skype from a island, I know people who have jobs with big companies that allow them to work remotely, I know people who work in the oil fields in USA/Canada who work one month and are off one month. Others are airline pilots that live in the carribean and commute to work, and so on.

    What I’m trying to say is that you can have your cake and eat it too, Travel the world, run a business but still build something (wealth, roots, whatever) back home to return too if you decide to end your digital nomad lifestyle.

    It’s not either or…it’s BOTH!

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Thanks for the insightful input: “There is not one way to become a digital nomad.” I love your examples of “seasonal” lifestyle – I suppose the most common example we see in our day to day lives in that of teachers. They work during certain months and sometimes (not always) have the summer months off to travel. I worked at a farm in Stockholm last summer as a volunteer, but the farm actually had some full-time employees that work during the summer and fall (in the cafe on the premises, or pressing apples in the fall) and then had the winter/early spring months to travel before coming back to another season on the farm in mid-spring. I actually want to explore the possiblity of a seasonal career – we’ll see!

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