The Digital Nomad Career Unfiltered: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

digital nomad career

It’s 3:30 a.m. as I write this in a caravan park in Hamilton, New Zealand. The metal picnic tables inside this cinder block kitchen are cold and provide a jail-type atmosphere. Deadlines are strange in time zones 18 hours behind your own. This wasn’t part of the plan, but then again, that’s what a digital nomad career is all about. Buckling down when you need to, finding the most fruitful ways to spend your free time, and pushing yourself to create ties and bonds to make a living are all part of the gig. It’s not for everyone, but if you find the initiative to get started, you’ll wonder why you ever lived any other way.

What’s a Digital Nomad?

If you’re considering a career as a digital nomad, you probably have some idea of what it is. However, there’s a ton of misinformation that can leave you with more questions than answers. As a digital copywriter, content writer, and SEO writer, I always find it interesting when I see digital nomads on Instagram. Their laptops set squarely in the middle of a picturesque sunset, sapphire waters, palm trees, and a fruity cocktail with something like #digitalnomadlife as the tag.

This isn’t reality — at least it’s not common. And that’s where many who try, fall short. It’s still work, and you’re best not to forget it. The trade-off is that you can swim in the Caribbean, visit ancient temples in Southeast Asia, or go skydiving in New Zealand during your free time.

Outsiders to the digital nomad lifestyle can’t completely wrap their head around this idea, and it’s certainly one that takes time to build if you’re a newbie. You aren’t on some kind of long-winded, finding-yourself vacation. You just choose to move from place to place instead of settling in one locale.

Still, the idea of being a digital nomad is fairly straightforward. Here’s a loose definition, so there’s no more confusion:

Digital nomad: (noun) Any person who uses telecommunications to earn a living outside of a traditional office setting, which allows them to travel indefinitely.

This broad definition allows people from different backgrounds with various skill sets to pursue a career as a digital nomad. Nearly every type of industry has some need for a remote worker, from education to IT to customer service. All you need to do is define your skills and find your niche.

It’s important to note that being a digital nomad is often confused with location independence. A nomad is always traveling, while a person with location independence is free to do their work from wherever, without feeling obligated to stay in a particular area or constantly move about. There is overlap between the two, and it depends on your level of exploration on how you want to manage it.

Do I Have the Chops, Skills, and Discipline?

The 9 to 5 is dead. You travel to some far-off tropical location, turn on your laptop, and make a living with ease. This may seem like the shackles are finally removed, and at first it’s a relief, until you realize that you’re the one in charge. You’re responsible for making your own schedule, meeting deadlines, finding new clients, sending invoices, acting as a collection agency, and just about every other aspect of a small business. It’s time-consuming, but it’s also rewarding.

Even if you have the chops, experience, and skills to excel at a particular gig, discipline and time management become equally as important. Miss a deadline? You just put your relationship with a client in jeopardy. Forgot to adjust for time zones? You slept through a meeting. All of these things can pose a problem for the novice nomad, but if you’re organized and can find your niche, it’s a one-two punch that can bring about success in your field.

Telecommute Jobs for the Digital Nomad Career

I fell backwards into this lifestyle, but many things in my life worked in my favor just by coincidence. I was a musician, so not having a steady income stream didn’t bother me. I was already used to touring, so traveling was part of my existence. So when I first decided to leave the country in 2013 at the age of 27, I didn’t have the same corporate background or a single career path that was so important to job-seeking for my peers. I was a jack-of-all-trades.

After I ran out of money in about three or four months in New Zealand, I hit the panic button. WHAT DO I DO? So, I turned on that extra bit of adrenaline. I worked packing bananas in boxes in a factory. I picked cherries in an orchard. I tended bar on a ski field. But everything had a finite employment period. I needed something more.

Fortunately, I had a friend who worked for a digital marketing agency back in the States take mercy on me. She allowed me to write a few ghostwriting assignments each month, and that’s how I became a digital nomad. With degrees in finance and classical guitar, I had little journalism or English background, but this only furthered my desire. Over five years later, I’ve learned enough to turn writing into my career.

I took an odd path to becoming a digital nomad, but that doesn’t mean you should follow the same path. I’d actually plead with you not to. Instead, give yourself a timeline and explore the options out there to find the perfect fit. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Digital writer: If you’re great at expressing ideas, adding valuable content to websites, digital writing is a solid choice. You can pick your areas of expertise, as well as the type of medium, such as whitepapers, blogs, advertising, technical writing, etc.
  • Blog writer: If you’re passionate about a topic, starting a blog is a way to turn a profit over time. You’ll need become well-versed in web design, content writing, advertising, social media, and more. The only problem is that this doesn’t necessarily translate to profits. However, the most successful 20 percent of blogs can make $500 or more a month.
  • Online tutor: With the right background or certification, you can tutor students online and make a decent living. Teaching English as a foreign language is a popular choice, but there are also opportunities in teaching musical instruments, math, SAT prep, and other subjects.
  • Get a gig: The emergence of the gig economy provides plenty of chances to make money on your own terms. You can find freelance work on many websites in any number of fields, drive for ride-sharing companies, walk dogs via apps, become a handyman, or rent your apartment out and live around the world on the money leftover after your mortgage or rent.
  • Start an online business: I’ve met many people who made a pretty penny on cryptocurrency, getting in and out when the market boomed in late 2017 and early 2018. These individuals are an exciting group because they have the capital to start a project while living in low cost-of-living areas such as Asia or South America. If you didn’t win out on cryptocurrency, don’t fret. You can still sell some of your assets and move to a cheap place if you’re serious about the nomadic lifestyle.
  • Use your lifestyle expertise: If you’re crazy about fitness, yoga, or running, people will pay you to be an instructor or personal trainer. It’s awesome because you get to work out, and you get to pick your clients. That’s a win-win.
  • Digital marketing: This has become another popular way to earn money as a nomad, specifically with aspects such as Facebook ads and social media marketing. Small companies are always looking for ways to promote their products, and if you can master the sales funnel, social media advertising, and email marketing, you’ve become a valuable asset to a seemingly endless amount of entrepreneurs and fresh companies.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of opportunities for your digital nomad career, but it does give you an idea of what’s available. If you don’t see your dream job or you are frightened by the thought of working for yourself, don’t worry. Many companies are now allowing remote work, which allows you to travel while earning a steady income.

Where to Live as a Digital Nomad

Choosing where to live as a digital nomad is one of the most difficult decisions, and perhaps as problematic as deciding on the digital nomad career path. You should consider all these aspects when choosing where to live:

  • What you love to do. This is a great problem to have. If you love skiing, head to the mountains. If you love the beach, go somewhere warm. If you aren’t sure, try one and then the other. A system of trial-and-error can always help you decide on the possibilities.
  • Places you’ve always wanted to see. If you’ve wanted to open the shutters of your apartment and stare at the Eiffel Tower, now’s the time.
  • Weather. You might think that living somewhere tropical is an awesome idea. After living in Danang, Vietnam, for eight months, I will tell you that 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity every day can be taxing.
  • Cost of living. Find out how long you can survive on your savings while you look for a place to live, and then factor in your housing costs, entertainment budget, food, and more. If your expenses outweigh your income, keep looking.
  • Housing availability. AirBnB, Homeaway, and house-sitting websites have made this easier, but most Western countries want to lock you into a one-year or six-month lease. If you’re not ready for that, go to Asia. These contracts seldom exist and you can usually talk your way into a month-to-month deal.
  • Air quality. This is also one of Asia’s pitfalls. You should definitely experience a city before you choose to live there, especially if pollution is unregulated.
  • Changes of culture. Research the culture you choose to visit ahead of time, and make sure it’s something you can work with. This is important so you limit any culture shock.
  • International transit availability. Living next to a major transportation hub is a blessing. Not only can you come and go out of the country quickly, but you can also find the cheapest flights available.
  • Visas. Grabbing a visa that allows you to stay for longer than a tourist waiver is a huge blessing. Although 159 countries give Americans a visa-free stay for 30 to 180 days, you may want to stay longer. Checking which countries have one-year visas or business visas can play a huge role in where you choose to reside.

Perhaps the best part of being a digital nomad is that if you don’t like somewhere, you can simply move on. Giving one of your considerations a week to wow you is a solid plan, but always let your instincts guide you.

The rise of the digital-nomad lifestyle has created a lifestyle that was merely a pipe dream 10 years ago. This career choice is still somewhat in its infancy, so now’s as good a time as ever to pursue it. It’s a bit nerve-racking and difficult at first, but if it were easy, digital nomadism would be the norm instead of the envied lifestyle. Once you’ve got a handle on it, you won’t regret your decision.

Are you interested in a digital nomad career? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us what you think. We’d love to hear from you!

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