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The highs and lows of life as a digital nomad

BY Kayla Ihrig

4th Jan 2024 Life

4 min read

The highs and lows of life as a digital nomad
In 2017, Kayla Ihrig bought a one-way ticket out of the United States and has spent most of her time abroad ever since. She shares the reality behind digital nomadism
It was dinner time, yet I hadn’t left my workstation for the day. Cheery people buzzed around me from nine to five, but with my head down and headphones in, I had interacted with very few of them. The memory of the day played more like a time-lapse than something that I actually fully experienced.
And no, this wasn’t at a grinding nine-to-five desk job: this was my first week living the digital nomad lifestyle. After leaving my corporate role and finding freelance writing work online to afford me the freedom to travel, my surroundings looked radically different. With naïve enthusiasm, I wholeheartedly expected my demeanour to mirror this. Instead, the first illusion-shattering realisation of my travel journey had hit: despite swapping my blazer and flats for a tank top and sandals, I was the exact same person I had been at home.
"After six years abroad, realism is now the primary message I share"
I’d prepared feverishly, guzzling gigabytes of content online about digital nomadism, yet somehow I unknowingly over-consumed inspiration and under-consumed realism. While you might expect finances to be the biggest killer of this lifestyle, unrealistic expectations are the death blow that I hear about most often. After six years abroad, realism is now the primary message I share.
Should you choose to become a digital nomad, your environment will change. Instead of a cubicle, you’ll work from a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean or a sunny rooftop terrace in the bustling heart of Marrakesh. Instead of waiting at the coffee machine next to complaining colleagues, your daily coffee run will lead you down dusty cobblestone streets into tiny crooked cafes. These dreams exist and are waiting for you once you clear customs. But that’s not all that’s waiting for new digital nomads.

The reality of life as a digital nomad

You’ll also wake up with emails in your inbox and to-dos begging to be ticked. At-home life and life on the road can at times feel shockingly similar, or, if bad work habits take over, even worse: a more gruelling grind, a harder hustle, and a more chaotic calendar. But this time on an island with slower internet.
It’s an important expectation to understand before you embark on your digital nomad lifestyle: your surroundings will change, but you take you everywhere that you go. No matter how ultra-light you pack.
While you may be imagining an entirely new version of yourself cosplaying this future digital nomad reality, becoming a digital nomad won’t change who you are. Not right away, at least, though the daydream is so potent that it can convince you otherwise.
Woman with laptop working in a garden
The average person probably wonders if the digital nomad lifestyle is as good as it looks online, and the answer is a resounding no; it’s so much better. The adrenaline, the feeling of freedom and control, the constant cycle of challenge and solution, the realisation that you achieved this huge goal of yours. It’s difficult for me to put it into words. How do you describe seeing your dreams come true? Everything you’ve seen pictures of is there. It exists. You can go to it. Visas and finances permitting, it’s not difficult.
But this narrative of mountaintops and victories needs balance, too. You rarely see the downsides publicised. The loneliness. The missed celebrations back home. The doctor’s appointments conducted through Google Translate. The uncertainty.
"This narrative of mountaintops and victories needs balance"
I’m certain I’m a better version of myself for having developed the problem-solving skills, confidence, and organisational prowess required to make this lifestyle work long-term. But it would also be woefully remiss of me to neglect to share the strain, decision fatigue, and lack of structure that come along with the good.
On a bad day as a digital nomad, you’d pay a lot of money to be right back at your desk with your grumpy colleague sitting next to you cursing at their computer. With the same old home waiting for you at the end of the day, knowing where you’d wake up and how the following day would likely unfold. The continuous cycle of making decisions, relocating, and acclimating takes its toll. When your life becomes so dependent on internet speed, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees. Or rather, the sunrise behind the laptop screen.
Travel isn’t an enlightened way of living, or a superior path. It’s also truly not for everyone. But for those who look longingly out their office windows daydreaming of a life of travel, this opportunity is everything. With a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, travellers can now have access to their careers, relationships, and familiar comforts from all corners of the world. This is the age of the digital nomad. Set your expectations correctly, it could be a portal into an entirely different life.
How to be a digital nomad
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