Over the last few years, I have lived among digital nomads.
I have become one myself, and lived in over 40 countries.
Admittedly, this doesn’t approach the epic proportions of Dr. Jane Goodall’s immersion with the chimpanzees of Tanzania across multiple decades. But it has still been enough time to come to grips with the location-independent movement.
Here, then, are two of the community’s most deeply-held values:
I think we all have a pretty good grasp of what “freedom” is.
“Minimalism”, on the other hand, may deserve a little more explanation (for the uninitiated).
It may be helpful to think of minimalism as the opposite of materialism and conspicuous consumption. It is the voluntary practice of simplifying one’s life.
The virtues of minimalism have been extolled since ancient times. Diogenes of Sinope was the founder of the Cynic school of Greek philosophy, arguing that happiness could be found through returning to the ways of nature. Diogenes himself lived a famously austere life, choosing to shelter himself inside of a wine barrel.
Painting of Diogenes (1882) by John William Waterhouse.
As the story goes, the infamous battle commander Alexander The Great once visited Diogenes. When King Alexander asked if there was anything that he might do for the philosopher, Diogenes only requested that Alexander step aside, for his shadow was blocking the sun. A man of few needs, indeed.
Diogenes is also credited as the first man to coin the term “cosmopolitan”. When asked where he was from, Diogenes is said to have replied (in Greek): “kosmopolitês”. Which, translated to English, becomes: “I am a Citizen of the World”.
Was Diogenes a mere eccentric? Maybe, but his wisdom has endured, cutting through the dividing lines of time, culture and distance. From Confucius in China, to Henry David Thoreau in 19th century America, to Gandhi in colonial India, to modern international thought-leaders like Ryan Holiday. All have advocated some form of minimalism. Clearly, ridding ourselves of superfluous holds an enduring appeal.
Perhaps Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have made the best recent case for the minimalist movement, through their (appropriately titled) book Minimalism. It is a summary of their personal journey transitioning from high-earning (but unhappy) corporate workers, to leaving it all behind, and what they learned along the way. It has become a favorite addition to the digital nomad library.
Millburn (left) and Nicodemus (right).
The book first sees Millburn and Nicodemus state the problem:
“The material possessions we accumulate will not make us happy. We all know this, and yet we often search for life’s meaning through accumulating more possessions”
It then continues through what they did, to cure their malaise.
“We eventually jettisoned many of our possessions, eliminating the excess in favor of things we liked and enjoyed – things we actually used in our daily lives.”
Followers of minimalism have often found that reducing their material possessions can lead to a fuller life. Once you realize that happiness is not waiting in the next purchase, you have to start searching for it elsewhere. This is perhaps why that there is such a strong “conscious” element running through the digital nomad community – practices such as yoga, meditation, and other forms of mindfulness are especially prevalent. They take the place of the materialism that most of the “ordinary world” are caught up in.
In my own view, minimalism and freedom are noble pursuits. Additionally, they seem to be highly complimentary to each other. Once you decide that you don’t have to “Keep Up With The Joneses” anymore, you can radically reduce your expenses. And if (like most people!) you are in debt, minimalism is a highly useful strategy to get out that debt, fast. Sell the things which don’t bring satisfaction, and become more careful before buying new things.
For debt is probably the biggest barrier to overcome in the quest for freedom. Dan Andrews of the Tropical MBA podcast labeled being in debt as being “screwed”, when describing the entrepreneurial lifestyle ladder.
When you’ve got monthly debt payments to service, it is so much harder to take the kinds of risks that come with quitting your job, moving away from home, and trying to make the whole digital nomad thing “work”.
But Minimalism Isn’t Enough
But here’s the thing with minimalism. Most of us don’t want to go quite so far as Diogenes.
Living in a barrel? No thanks.
(*Although, if you want to try it, I certainly won’t judge.)
So the kind of freedom that most digital nomads crave requires building an income, as well as reducing expenses. The nomad hubs of South-East Asia may be cheap, but they certainly aren’t free. No matter how strongly we profess our “love for freedom”, that love (by itself) is not what is going to put noodles on the table. Without income, a new digital nomad will soon find their savings depleted, boarding a plane, and forced to rejoin the workforce… to hear their (skeptical) friends from back home utter: “I told you so”.
To avoid that fate, it is basic fact that making money means either offering a valuable skill for hire, or starting a business.
Selling their skills is what most newly-minted digital nomads do. And there’s nothing wrong with this. But the real goal (if true freedom is the aim) is to unlink income from time. This means becoming an entrepreneur. This path isn’t for everyone, but I’m going to focus the rest of this article on the digital nomad entrepreneurs, and the sorts of businesses they are building – because I think there’s a conversation here that needs to be had.
An Inconvenient Incongruity
There are many well-trodden entrepreneurial paths to make money online. One of the most popular is e-commerce. This involves selling goods online, using one of several methods, such as:
- Amazon FBA
- Affiliate websites
For those who aren’t already close to this world of Internet business, those terms might be unfamiliar. But for the purposes of this article, don’t worry too much – they are all forms of e-commerce, with the only difference being in the delivery and monetization methods.
The goal in every case is the same, to get people to click “Buy Now”.
The reader should already be able to taste the irony: digital nomads embracing minimalism… only to then turn around and make a living reliant on selling “stuff”.
The train of thought of many e-commerce sellers can be summarized as follows:
“We are for living conscious lives, and shunning materialism. At the same time, we are for increasing our own personal freedom. Freedom requires the accumulation of money – for money allows us to live a life on our own terms. And maximizing that freedom often means becoming better digital marketers, so that we can sell more stuff to people.”
It’s a textbook case of Orwellian Doublethink: the simultaneous acceptance of two mutually contradictory beliefs:
- that we should reject materialism (as minimalists),
- while at the same time being the cause of materialism (as digital marketers).
A Path Forward?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that “commerce is bad” After all, everyone has to make a living. Commerce can be the path to solving problems and lifting people out of poverty. Producing quality items which brings satisfaction is a noble and worthy pursuit.
There’s also nothing wrong with getting rich. If you create a lot of value in the world, you deserve to be paid for it.
And, there’s not even anything wrong with e-commerce, per-se. It’s more about the products being sold. Are they fit for purpose? Do customers really need them? Or are they junk?
It’s also about the sales tactics. There are certain psychological levers that marketers can pull to create false and artificial needs. It can be easier (and more profitable) to create scarcity in the mind of the consumer, and then sell to them to fill the gap that has just been opened. When buyers fall prey to this, it enriches the seller, but creates the kind of discontent that minimalists rail against.
Now, “marketers creating false and artificial needs” is hardly new. Corporations have been at it for years. To take an obvious example, the entire fashion industry is predicated on convincing people of the notion that you can’t really be cool or hip unless you are constantly refreshing your wardrobe every season.
So the problem is not unique to nomads. It’s really just a reflection of business in general. We need entrepreneurs who care about their total impact in making the world a better place – rather than just a narrow focus on increasing sales.
But I would argue that nomads have a special duty, thanks to the minimalism they espouse in their personal lives. As such, nomads should hold themselves to a higher standard, as change-makers. We should become more accountable for how we achieve our freedom. Not freedom “by any means necessary”, but in a way that makes the world a better place, as well.
For if we are to be “Citizens of the World” in a practical sense, we cannot very well abandon the “scarcity mindset”, while simultaneously pushing our products using “scarcity sales tactics”. If we go down that path, then we are just perpetuating exactly the kind of consumerism that we were meant to have escaped, along with our cubicles.
We are incredibly privileged for the times we live in. So let’s use this moment to do more than escape the old, broken system. Let’s also build a better system in its place.
Towards Being More Than Conscious Consumers
People everywhere (not just nomads) are becoming increasingly aware about what it means to be a conscious consumer – being mindful about how we spend our money – using every dollar as a vote for the kind of world we would like to see. Natasha Anthadosiuo of Generation Generous spoke about this eloquently and powerfully on the 7th Nomad Cruise. Sara and Joao of No Footprint Nomads have some great tips on living a zero waste lifestyle as well.
But as entrepreneurs, being a conscious consumer is only part of the equation. And it is not even the most important part. If we really want to be the change we want to see in the world, we have to be deliberate about how we make our money too.
It means becoming conscious producers.
It means choosing business models which satisfy real needs, rather than artificially creating them with clever sales copy.
It means offering experiences and quality services which don’t deplete the Earth’s resources, rather than physical “stuff” that will clutter up people’s lives, and eventually the planet’s landfills.
And, it means that those who do sell physical products have a duty to make them sustainable, ethically-sourced, and built to last.
No question – this is the harder path to take.
Deliberately shunning the “marketing tricks” leaves money on the table.
As a seller, it probably means learning to be happy with less.
But, after all, isn’t that what minimalism is all about?