Synopsis: This article explains the origins of the digital nomad lifestyle – from The 4-Hour Work Week, published in 2007, right through to the present day. They are people who have embraced a global identity. Read on to learn about the sorts of lifestyles that these so-called “Citizens of the World” are already living.
“It’s like the Wild West, the Internet. There are no rules.” – Stephen Wright
The Digital Nomad Lifestyle
The prospect of using the Internet to achieve freedom from the 9-to-5 and pursue the digital nomad lifestyle has inspired a lot of people to make some extremely irresponsible life choices.
Irresponsible, at least, from the point of view of the traditional life script of education, career and retirement that most people have been brought up with.
Quit your job. Purge yourself of almost everything you own. Leave behind your friends and family. Buy a one-way plane ticket, and try to make money online. No career guidance counsellor would ever endorse such a hare-brained scheme. Many friends and family, with the very best of intentions, might also try to talk you out of it. It’s a crazy notion.
Crazy or not, this is the story of those who decided to do it anyway.
They call themselves by a variety of names, including “digital nomads”, “lifestyle entrepreneurs” and “remote workers” – never quite settling on a universally-acceptable label. Regardless, this roving band of Internet money-makers share a bond – their rejection of mainstream society, in favor of using cyberspace to live their twin passions for freedom and location-independence. This is the digital nomad lifestyle.
Today, digital nomads are running six-figure and seven-figure companies from the unlikeliest of places – tropical islands in South-East Asia, outposts of the former Soviet Union, and far-flung corners of Latin America. They use business models unimaginable a mere ten or twenty years ago. They assemble remote teams from low-wage countries, while selling their products and services internationally. Their lifestyles draw upon the best parts of the whole world. These extraordinary people are the living embodiment of globalization in its most radical form.
On the surface, the digital nomad lifestyle looks indistinguishable from any other long-term vagabonds, or so they would have you believe. But this masks something deeper: unlike the hippies of yesteryear, digital nomads are doing more than rejecting society’s rules – they are reshaping them.
The Book Of Tim
Every great movement needs a manifesto, and for digital nomads, that book is The 4-Hour Work Week.
It is a jarring title, especially for those fed up with their uninspiring routine, punching a clock at a job they hate, in exchange for a paycheck which doesn’t let them get ahead. This unfortunate existence describes a great deal of modern career workers.
The 4-Hour Work Week’s cover features an alluring silhouette of a hammock suspended two tropical palm trees, with the bold subheading of “Escape The 9-5, Live Anywhere And Join The New Rich”.
Quite the promise.
The big idea behind the book was that our life goals can be achieved more effectively than working in a career until retiring. Or as Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth put it, “The 4-Hour Workweek is a new way of solving a very old problem: just how can we work to live and prevent our lives from being all about work?”
Ferriss contended that people don’t really want to have a million dollars, they really want to have the experiences that comes with being a millionaire, such as beach houses, fast cars, fine wine and above all, free time.
Mainstream society has taught us that these rewards come from studying hard, getting a good job, working hard and saving. Because most people are following the same path, it can be hard to see any alternative exists. But Ferriss implored readers to consider a different approach to life. “Reality is negotiable”, he said. What matters is massive results for as little effort as possible. Early in the book, Ferriss puts the following question to the reader: “How can one achieve the millionaire lifestyle of complete freedom without first having $1,000,000?”
Some examples of his way of thinking: The beach bungalow can be had on a time-share rather than bought outright. A high-performance car doesn’t need to be purchased, only for it to end up immobilized in a traffic jam most of the time on the morning commute – just rent one for a few hours and take it for a spin around a racetrack. Drink the wine for a fraction of the cost by going to the country it was grown in, rather than pay the rack rate in some soulless fancy restaurant. Use the savings to work fewer hours and use the extra free time to do what is truly important to you.
Ferriss then laid out a step-by-step guide explaining how to become a member of “The New Rich” – an individual with both time and location freedom. Anyone who could scrape together just a few thousand dollars to afford a laptop and a plane ticket could start an online business and live on the cheap in a tropical island paradise until the business was earning enough to pay its way.
The Four-Hour Work Week was also notable for introducing outsourcing to an audience who might have never considered it. Most people thought that hiring people overseas is only something that big corporations do, but Ferriss encouraged readers to try it for themselves. Busy professionals can use online platforms like Upwork to find and hire a capable, highly motivated and proficient English-speaking person in the Phillipines, who is delighted to work for $5 an hour. By paying someone else, the reader can free themselves up to do more important work, or for more leisure time.
Part of the reason behind The 4-Hour Work Week’s phenomenal success was its timing. It was published in 2007 – right about when working online from anywhere on the planet became technologically feasible.
Ten years earlier, two other books had already predicted that the internet would one day allow people to make money online and live this way. The Sovereign Individual by James Dale Davidson & William Rees-Mogg, and Digital Nomad by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners were both thought-provoking (and, as it turns out, highly prescient), but they left readers hanging – interesting though these books were, what were you supposed to do with the information, other than wait for that future to arrive?
Back in 1997, everyone was still on dial-up internet, searching with AltaVista and building websites on Geocities. It was tough to turn a profit with such primitive tools at their disposal. Ten years on, in 2007, The 4-Hour Work Week was far more powerful, because the intervening decade saw the internet improve so markedly. Instead of being told about the possibility of a faraway “somedays”, readers were told how this dream could be theirs, here and now.
Even so, most people dismissed Ferriss. It all sounded a bit too good to be true. “The 4-Hour Work Week?!” Come on. It is surely an attention-grabbing headline, designed to sell books to gullible people, using the lure of a dream which sounds seductive, but is ultimately out of reach.
But for digital nomads, reading that book has been life-changing.
They describe their first reading of The 4-Hour Work Week in terms normally reserved for conversion to a religious faith. Until then, most people had never imagined it was possible to perpetually travel, while also making enough money to sustain the digital nomad lifestyle and enjoy the best of what life has to offer. For some people, once the thought was planted, it became impossible to ignore, especially if they were unhappy with their current lot in life. They could never see the world the same way again.
So, some brave souls took Ferriss at his word and did as he commanded.
They left their careers, sold their stuff, hopped on a plane and started trying this internet moneymaking thing. The digital nomad lifestyle was worth a shot, right? If it didn’t work out, they could always move back home and get another job.
But to their surprise and delight, it worked!
Ferriss wasn’t selling snake oil. It really is possible to reject the status quo and live as a digital nomad. People are proving it every day in greater and greater numbers.
The Perception Is Not The Reality
The world of digital nomads contains larger-than-life personalities with scarcely believable stories.
The high priests of the movement, with their armies of podcast listeners and social media followers.
Scrappy internet marketers, using the latest tricks to make a buck any way they can.
Entrepreneurs running large remote teams from the unlikeliest of places.
Organizers of retreats, co-working spaces and conferences, attempting to build communities within the new nomad economy.
Survivalists preparing for the end of the nation-state and fiat currency.
And lawyers in tropical tax havens who are filling in the forms to help these nomads make their borderless lives official.
I’m hoping to shatter a lot of long-standing myths about the digital nomad lifestyle – one of which is that they are all just running travel blogs, barely scraping by. This may be the image they carefully foment – practically all of them posted to their social media profiles the clichéd picture of themselves with their laptop, holding a coconut, to the backdrop of a beachy sunset.
But some digital nomads are making eye-watering fortunes.
An Australian-born digital nomad runs a website which sells goods manufactured in India. Her customers are mostly in North America and Western Europe. Her company is registered in Belize, she holds residency in Georgia, and she does her banking in Singapore. Most of her business functions are automated through software, but she has a few people in Vietnam working for her part-time. She has no permanent home of her own, living full-time in Airbnbs, and only owns what fits in her luggage. She never spends more than two or three months in any one place; last year she was in Mexico, Peru, Hungary, Bulgaria, Thailand and Malaysia. Next year’s travel itinerary promises to be entirely different.
A person who lives and conducts their affairs in this way is a citizen of the world – and not in some vague, cultural sense, but in a very real, practical sense. They have no home base and the whole world is their playground.
If products and services can be delivered through the internet, it can be registered anywhere, with no effect on its ability to do business. The challenge this represents to traditional notions of national borders is impossible to understate. Where, for example, should that digital nomad pay tax? In Australia, where she grew up? In Belize, where her company is registered? In Vietnam, where her staff are doing the work? In the half-dozen nations where she spent her time last year? In the even greater number of countries where her customers are?
Such a question would stump a lot of trained accountants.
Well, as the rules stand, she finds herself in the happy position of being free from any obligation to pay tax. She isn’t a tax resident of Australia because she doesn’t spend any time in her homeland. The corporate tax rate in Belize is zero percent. She holds residency in a country with a territorial tax regime, meaning it will only tax personal income earned within the borders of Georgia and because she has no Georgian customers, that means she doesn’t need to pay tax there either. So long as she is careful not to exceed the threshold for becoming a tax resident somewhere else (six months per year, in most cases), she exists completely outside of the system.
A theme that comes up again and again in the digital nomad lifestyle is the relentless thirst for freedom.
Time freedom. Location freedom. Financial freedom.
Where goes freedom, there go nomads. When an obstacle to freedom presents itself, they immediately seek out a solution, and share the information on one of the many nomad online forums, so that others can do the same. Information-sharing and solidarity with their fellow freedom-seekers is a core tenet of the community. Rules that are contrary to their vision of unlimited personal freedom are there to be broken or avoided, and these include many of the directives that democratically-elected governments have put in place, such as taxes, minimum wages and visa limits. Digital nomads tend to be aggressive adopters of remote hiring, cryptocurrency, automation – anything that promises to give them more freedom.
For a lot of people, such existential threats to the nature of work and government are scary. You might feel that the digital nomad lifestyle is immoral; why should they be able to pick and choose which of society’s rules they choose to follow? On the other hand, it might motivate you to join their ranks, and adopt a borderless life for yourself. I ask only that the reader keep an open mind.
While it is always dangerous to try to characterize people as a group, particularly such staunch individualists as digital nomads, I am going to attempt to capture the essence of the movement. The attitudes, the incredible stories, and the seismic impact they are having on a system that they see as fundamentally broken.
… This story of the digital nomad lifestyle is to be continued.
It’s in my upcoming book: Citizens of the World.
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