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Why digital nomadism is already the future - Part 1

Going Remote.August 10, 2018
By Alex James Napier Holland
Alex is a Red Bull-featured guitarist and digital nomad. He quit his corporate sales career and became a digital nomad in 2017. He now runs a content agency for tech companies and travels the planet. You can follow him at www.alexnapierholland.com

Can digital nomads contribute to the communities in which they live?

This important question seems to increasing appear in lifestyle blogs and progressive newspapers. One published article recently slung criticism against the ‘privilege’ of remote working; titled, ‘Digital nomads cannot be the future’.

I’m a digital nomad and it looks like I’ll now spend much of my year in Bali.

I spent six years in a corporate tech career, before launching my content marketing business. So I fit the privileged stereotype that’s often critiqued.

From experience, most digital nomads are aware of the issues regarding the inherent privilege of our lifestyle.

And most of us are keen to explore ways in which our fledgling movement can evolve and benefit and include a wider range of people.

And it already is — although far more must be done.

An essential difference of perspective, is that I believe ‘privilege’ is something we should be aware of in our thinking; and not as a metric by which we decide whether someone is entitled to feel unhappy and/or motivated to improve their position in life.

Digital nomadism is a great lifestyle, which has helped many people to become healthier, happier and more fulfilled. Including me. But it’s important that we shape this young movement into a model that’s inclusive and contributes to the social and economic frameworks of the countries in which we base ourselves.

And I’ve already seen this happening, for example, at Hubud with Startup Weekend Bali for Indonesian Youth  — teaching them useful skills and sharing experiences from Indonesian entrepreneurs.

But government recognition of this new and growing lifestyle is essential, if we’re going to really leverage its capacity to include and develop local communities.

We need a formal way to pay taxes in the countries where we live/work; to get short-term work visas; and to quickly and legally launch and build businesses with the local friends we make in these countries.

Good and socially-beneficial local projects often don’t launch, because of legislative barriers. Closer relationships and deeper understanding and exchange between people around the planet is an inherently positive thing.

But it’s right to be concerned about the shape in which this develops — and to ensure that everyone benefits.

My key beliefs in regard to digital nomadism and its place in society are:

  • Digital nomadism is a fundamental expression of freedom.
  • Digital nomadism is a cultural and technological inevitability.
  • Digital nomadism is fluid. We can shape its development, using sensible policies.
  • Everyone has the right to improve their life each day — including multi-millionaires.
  • Modern corporate life should be aggressively challenged for the damage that it’s doing to the psychological and physical health of millions of Westerners.
  • Progress is progress. And halting progress for those at the top does not help those at the bottom.
  • When developing nations look to the West for models on progress, that increases the impetus on us to make sure we’re doing it in a way that makes us happy. We shouldn’t blindly promote our own unhealthy lifestyles.

What is digital nomadism?

Digital nomadism isn’t a state; it’s the absence of a state.

Or is it? This is an existential question for the nomad movement. On the face of it, we have to undertake significant effort and create an online business, with integrated payment systems and a legal structure for a hapless accountant to decipher, in order to generate sufficient cash to live and work remotely.

Flip-side, is that I’d expect a committed anti-capitalist to critique the fact that we’re all encouraged to think about ‘earning money’ exclusively through the lens of enslaving ourselves to someone else’s company a little more closely.

(Remember, every company founder once laughed at the idea of working for someone else a day longer, flipped the bird and walked out.)

It’s ironic that Western university campuses are turning out graduates who fiercely advocate critique of oppressive multi-nationals — then complain that it’s very hard to get a corporate job and a mortgage on a white-picket house, just like the one next door.

I can’t think of anything more punk-rock and counter-culture than setting up a profitable online business, then flipping-off ‘the man’ and anyone who says you have to wear a suit, polish your shoes, have a smart haircut and turn-up at 9am each day to watch hours drift by, while shuffling papers. I live to ride off into the sunset, with my business in a laptop in my rucksack.

Maybe I’m just behind the times. Perhaps it’s rebellious to follow social conventions now? Anyway, I’m digressing from the helpful stuff.

The fact is that we’re trained to work for big companies from a very young age.

And as Jack Ma, the CEO of AliBaba has noted, this poses a big problem — as the repetitive, memory-retention style of learning that schools still lean towards is only going to become less useful, as machine-learning and AI blow humans out of the water on these kinds of tasks.

From the youngest age, the idea of working in an office was a bizarre, abstract idea. It was obvious to me that life was simply about walking out into the world with a backpack and exploring and discovering new places and people.

Could anyone define a clearer, purer form of freedom than the ability to wander?

And it’s strange to be aged 32, finally enjoying this simple and healthy lifestyle — after a Herculean effort, which involved ignoring the cynical recommendations of a LOT of people.

Why did I choose digital nomadism?

Me and school didn’t get on too well. Primary school and university were the only two educational establishments I wasn’t thrown out of.

Fortunately, I loved sports and debate. So that got me through.

Shortly before graduating, in 2009, I realised it was probably time to deal with ‘reality’, so asked the Lonely Planet forum, ‘How do you balance a career and travelling?’.

The responses reached eight pages over three years, with the glum conclusion that your life would suck in one way or another — with either crap pay or a dull, repetitive existence.

Digital nomadism wasn’t mentioned — because in 2009 it barely existed.

‘Digital nomad’ search popularity on Google Trends

So, I decided to be sensible. I shaved off my mohawk, took my piercings out and got a well-paid job in technology sales.

It nearly killed me. I arrived in my late twenties, 30kg overweight, borderline alcoholic and severely depressed — despite having a beautiful apartment, powerful BMW and a healthy salary and international travel that most people would envy.

I was the ‘fat man with a red BMW’ that Tim Ferriss talks about. Except my BMW was silver.

My apartment felt like a prison. My alarm clock was a jailer, knocking on my door.

(FYI, I have ADHD — so YMMV.)

I said to my therapist, ‘This probably sounds like first world problems’.

He looked at me strangely and said, quizzically but firmly, ‘But we live in the first world?’. To this day, he may not know how empowering his words were.

I can only imagine from Paris Max’s position on digital nomadism and privilege, that he might describe the expensive therapy I received — which lead to me being able to take action and become fit, healthy and empowered again, as ‘privilege’.

Either way, the way ‘privilege’ is treated by the modern Left is a serious obstacle to progress. It’s inevitable that privileged, wealthy people will be the first to enjoy most social and technological benefits. And It’s difficult to imagine an economic system in which this wouldn’t be the case.

Even if we remove private property ownership, there is still the huge privilege for children born to high IQ parents (genetic factors explain around 50% of differences between individuals) and for children born into homes with more books in their home (who are more likely to achieve higher levels of education).

Inequality isn’t just a fact of economics; it’s a fact of reality.

And so the most useful question that we can ask, is ‘How can we improve living standards and opportunities for everyone — especially those at the bottom?’.

Is digital nomadism for everyone?

I have beef with digital nomads who romanticise our lifestyle and pretend it’s easy. In truth, I work much longer hours and do substantially more challenging work than at any point in my corporate career.

However, I’m able to counter it, because I can experience a deep level of calm by disappearing into nature whenever I like; having adventure-sports on-tap; and being free to schedule my work/play to my preference.

Especially as I’m surrounded by fellow nomads, who are committed to building a healthy work/life balance. And — in particular — as I have the prospect of automating my business so I can spend LESS time working in the future, in addition to earning more cash (a goal few office workers can dream of).

My fitness, well-being and productivity are on a level I’ve never experienced.

However, getting here wasn’t easy.

Despite having a senior international sales position, I had to learn a lot of new skills in order to work remotely. I walked away from a six-figure career in Sydney, to work on a building site for six months (minimal intellectual distraction) while learning about SEO, before I got my first big client.

But this goes back to the earlier point about education — and about the importance of teaching children to build a lifestyle that they will enjoy; rather than signing-up to a career that sounds impressive, or which pleases their parents or teacher.

We need to make digital nomadism more accessible to people across the world, including developing countries. Banning or stigmatising digital nomadism isn’t the answer to addressing the low levels of social inclusion.

And for the record, I agree on how predatory some digital nomad ‘life coaches’ are, when it comes to trying to sell information-light ‘Become a digital nomad’ eBooks, which suggest we lie around working on the beach all day.

Seriously, do you think I want sand in my MacBook?

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