Why Pursue The Digital Nomad Lifestyle?

On the face of it, digital nomads are people who appear to be perfectly sane. And yet, they still find their way to make some very unusual lifestyle choices.

They quit their jobs, sell most of their possessions, and pack up what little remains into a single suitcase, and travel off in some seemingly half-baked scheme “to make money online”.

A digital nomad leaves behind their family, their friends, and their familiar surroundings. They then proceed to embark on a voyage resembling the Trial of OdysseusJust like that ancient Greek Hero, digital nomads face the ejection from their homeland. Then, they wander throughout the world, overcoming trials and tribulations, on a quest for freedom, fortune, and most importantly of all – meaning.

Many nomads explain this as a simple desire to travel more. But that can’t be the full story. To spark such drastic action, there has to be more to it than that. Becoming a digital nomad has all the hallmarks of a fully-blown mid-life crisis (or, for those a bit younger, perhaps a quarter-life crisis). It’s like a conversion to a new religious faith – such a complete 180-degree revision of belief doesn’t tend to *just happen*.

What sparks this crisis?

More than anything, it takes a deep, abiding dissatisfaction with something that I call “The System”.

What Is “The System”?

“The System” is the life script that we were brought up with. From our very earliest days at school, we were taught: study hard, get a job, and work hard at it until retirement. Happiness will follow.

  • The System says to go to college to become qualified (which, these days, means getting into debt)
  • The System says to submit your job application, and hope that someone else says “yes”
  • The System says to start at the bottom and slowly work your way up a defined career ladder
  • The System says you only get a few weeks of vacation each year… if you are lucky
  • The System says material goods are markers of high status (the acquisition of which often involves more debt)
  • The System says you need a big house to put all that stuff in (even more debt)
  • The System says “if you want to work overseas, you need a permit for that”

And what do we get for this deal?

Well, the System promises “job security”. But that is nothing more than an illusion. Though jobs appear safe, changes in technology mean that jobs are at greater risk than ever. Offshoring and automation are continuing apace. There’s no such thing as a “job for life” anymore.

So, what else?

The System also allows a person to live in safe conformity. No-one is going to question you when you follow the normal life script. It takes a lot of courage to jump outside of the script – which is why most people will never do it.

When The World Is Mad, The Sane Person Appears Crazy

Following The System eats up all of our time, keeps us away from those we love, destroys our health, poisons the Earth, and doesn’t give us the sort of quality of life we actually desire.

Once you start to realize this, it’s hard to un-see. It’s like the world flips on its head. Down Is Up, and Up Is Down.

” ‘Normal’ is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” – Ellen Goodman

Maybe it’s a Millennial thing. The System is a clear hangover from the industrial age, where people needed to be taught to follow processes. The System is very good at achieving that. But Millennials tend to have the rather annoying habit of questioning things:

  • “why am I being taught by a lecturer in a physical lecture theater, when I could get the same information through an online video?”
  • “why can’t I work from home?”
  • “where did this idea of working a set schedule of 9-to-5 even come from”?

Or, maybe this dissatisfaction with The System has always been there, but previous generations have simply lacked the technology to do much about it. Certainly, the arrival of lightweight laptops and fast Internet all over the world has made it much easier to design our path, rather than follow somebody else’s.

So, Digital Nomads Exit The System

They decide that The Emperor Has No Clothes.

Instead of materialism, they pursue simplicity. Instead of hard work, they look for shortcuts. Instead of job security, they learn to hustle and (proverbially) hunt for their own food.

The System often thwarts their attempts, and tries to pull them back in – with difficult-to-follow visa rules, or other cumbersome bureaucracy – but if they’re relatively clever, digital nomads can figure out ways to Hack The System.

Digital nomads will tell anyone who will listen that “The System” is broken. And judging by state of the world, they are probably right. A shrinking middle class, college graduates saddled with gloomy job prospects, environmental challenges which seem insurmountable, and politicians elected on nationalist platforms to erect walls and strengthen borders.

“Warning: contents of this society have been known to create feelings of stress and alienation, provoke wars, homicides and suicides, and pollute the habitat you need for survival. This is, really, just the best we have been able to do up until now and it could be that improvement will actually overturn much of what we now accept and advocate… What we’re teaching probably needs to change, and soon”. – Ron Davison, author of The Fourth Economy

But though a digital nomad exits The System, they can’t eschew systems altogether. That just leads to becoming a wandering, aimless vagabond. Many digital nomads were high-achievers at school and in their careers, before they choose a different path. After a while, lying on the beach day-after-day loses its appeal.

So, what do they do instead?

Digital Nomads Build New Systems

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” -Buckminster Fuller

Most digital nomads are smart and ambitious. Though it’s not easy, with enough persistence, they can slowly figure it all out. Clayton Cornell (a.k.a. The Spartan Traveler) laid it all out in the 6 phases of lifestyle design. In summary, a digital nomad goes from binge travel, to trying to work while travel (while getting very little done), to eventually getting serious and building their own vehicle to support what they actually want. This means building systems.

It may seem a bit ironic, given that their original determined exit from The System. But being an entrepreneur of any kind (online or offline) is about building systems. Some of the most popular digital nomad books are the likes of Work The System, and The E-Myth.

It is the realization that systems are not bad, per se. The System that a digital nomad escaped from produces all the bad outcomes mentioned earlier, but the new systems can be better systems.

So the solution isn’t to abandon systems altogether, it’s to replace them with ones which produce superior outcomes.

But – and this is important – the new systems that digital nomads are building are often weakening the foundations of The (old) System. And if you ask digital nomads, that’s a good thing. Digital nomad systems favor a flexible labor force, hiring in the developing world, and caring more about what an employee can do, and not so much their credentials.

It’s all adding up to accelerating the spread of globalization. In this way, these distant lands at the frontier of the Internet revolution are increasingly affecting life in the developed world, too.

“The System” is dead. Long live the system.

The story of digital nomads & the Internet gold rush. It’s in my upcoming book: Citizens of the World. Click below to receive updates & sample chapters!
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