I didn’t quite intend to become a digital nomad this year.
While packing up my flat in Shanghai last December 2017, I knew that I was going to spend the first few months of 2018 travelling, living, and working throughout Southeast Asia. And why not? As Head of Startups at NewCampus, I could live and work anywhere so long as I had WiFi.
After 3 or so months, the plan was to move back to the States to find a new city to settle down in for a while.
The other day I was reflecting on the year — thinking back about the places I’ve travelled to and lived in— and was honestly surprised when I counted that I’ve lived in 11 different cities this year!
From Saigon and Bali, Oklahoma City and San Francisco, to Dubai and Barcelona, a lot has happened in 2018. And from all of this travel, living out of a backpack, and adapting to life on the go, I’ve got to say that I learned quite a lot as a digital nomad.
(Note: I’m going to start with the big lessons first, and then make my way to the lighter and fun ones!)
#1 Learning that home is wherever you are
After a few months living on the go at the beginning of this year, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. I was tired of not having a place to really call “home”. I didn’t have my flat to come home to at the end of the day with my quirky trinkets and furnishings to make the place feel cosy.
Instead, home was whichever Airbnb I was staying in that week or month. It didn’t feel very personal, and whenever someone asked me where I call home, I would pause for a moment.
“Uhm, I’m from Oklahoma, in the States, but I’m currently living in Hanoi. But I’ll be living in Bali next month”.
Where was “home”?
Yet, about mid-way through the year, while I was living in Dubai helping the NewCampus team launch our first colearning campus, something changed. A friend I had made in Dubai asked me one night, “Where do you call home?”. I replied, “Wherever I am at the moment”.
This was a great realization — one of those “aha!” moments. Why? Because I realized that I didn’t need a physical location or a permanent flat to feel at home.
And I think this is great learning that can come from being a digital nomad. As there’s so much that can change in our lives, we have to be ready to go with the flow. We have to learn to feel comfortable in ourselves wherever we may be.
#2 Cross-cultural awareness is one of the most important things to learn
I’m not going to say that I gained an expert understanding of the cultures and languages of the various places I lived in this year — that takes way longer than living in a place for a few weeks or months at a time.
Yet, travelling and living in many different cities does expose you to numerous people, cultures, and languages; likely way more than if you were staying in one place.
Why is this important?
As our world becomes more globalized through the Internet, we’re likely to come across and interact with many people from varying backgrounds. It’s so important to be able to be open to those differences and learn from them. I went from doing work calls on the beach in Bali, to wearing professional clothes to meet key government figures in Dubai, to learning about how the same phrase in Spanish can have an entirely different meaning depending on if you’re in Mexico or Spain.
Yet, experiencing different cultures is how we build stronger connections with each other, how we build greater understanding and empathy for our differences. When you’re exposed to other cultures and ways of life, you learn to start seeing the world from others’ points-of-view, and this will allow you to create, problem-solve and build (whatever you may be working on) with a new and powerful perspective.
#3 You’ve gotta learn to go with the flow
When you’re travelling, living, and working on-the-go, you realize that a lot of small hiccups will occur.
The signs for the bus line may only be in the local language (which you can’t read) and you’re already running late to catch your flight. Or your WiFi connection may unexpectedly go out for a plethora of reasons, and you’re unable to make that meeting with your coworkers.
As Murphy’s Law states, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”.
Now, I don’t think it’s actually that bad! But a lot of unexpected things will occur. You can get upset and stressed about them, or you can realize that whatever is happening is likely not the end of the world. That there’s some sort of solution, and that solution is likely much easier to discover if you remain calm.
#4 You don’t need a desk to get work done
This goes along with #3 above. So many of us have this idea that we need to be sitting at a desk, probably in an office, to get work done. And yes, working in a quiet space is amazing (I often need this!), don’t get me wrong.
But the point here is that while living and working as a digital nomad, I realized that I can actually work on a bus, plane, cafe, or on the beach. As long as I take the time and start focusing on the task at hand, it’s actually pretty easy to work from anywhere.
And it definitely helped to have amazing coworkers at NewCampus, who were also working remotely from various cities around the world. They were incredibly understanding whenever my WiFi dropped or my phone battery died!
#5 You don’t need to pack as much as you think
This one is more for fun, but it’s still an important lesson learned from this year of being a digital nomad.
You actually don’t need to pack and bring as much as you think you do! Most likely, you can buy what you need wherever you are travelling.
Save yourself the money (budget airlines’ baggage fees are ridiculous), the time, and the energy by not carrying that extra suitcase up 7 flights of stairs to the Airbnb you’re renting in humid Saigon.
As I said at the beginning, I didn’t intend to become a full-fledged digital nomad this 2018. But looking back, I’m really glad I did.
I met so many incredible people from all walks of life, ate incredible food, learned to become way more flexible (both with my time and in how I work), gained incredible time-management skills, and saw some pretty incredible places. So if you’re thinking of travelling and working remotely next year, do it. You definitely won’t regret it, and you’ll learn way more than you meant to.
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