5 Lessons I Learned After a Year as a Digital Nomad

It has been 14 months since I sold all my stuff, left Los Angeles, and started living out of a backpack on the road. I’ve learned a ton, but here are five lessons that I thought were particularly important.

1. Run Towards Your Fears

Last year, I was scared of eating alone in a restaurant. In May while in Belfast, I decided to face that fear and dine alone at a nice Indian restaurant around the corner from where I was staying. I brought a book as a backup plan, but figured I could enjoy people watching while I ate. Strangely enough, there were 8 tables at the restaurant, and 7 of them were occupied by single diners. I got the sweats (I sweat when facing social fears), and wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I made it through.

Fast forward 9 months. I land in Vancouver from London, and am battling an 8 hour timezone difference so I’m up at 5a. I’m striding down the street en route to a solo breakfast. The air is crisp, I’ve got a good book in hand, and it feels great to be alive. My thoughts wander to how I felt about eating by myself back in Ireland, and I laugh! It’s no longer a fear, but a pleasure to dine alone. And it clears up energy to spend on conquering even bigger fears (like diving with sharks!)

2. Pack Less

Everybody says it, and it’s true. After bringing a huge pack to Argentina in December 07, in May I decided to travel with only a carry-on. I set out with a beautiful and functional MEI Voyageur, which I’ve carried on to the 20+ flights I’ve taken since. I’ve visited 6 continents (some twice) with a carry-on, and it feels amazing to pop off a Mumbai to London flight, hit customs, and go!

If you’re diligent about washing the stuff that should be kept clean (underwear, socks, etc) and are smart about buying other clothes (like brilliant Icebreaker t-shirts that don’t smell) you can go a long way with not a lot of clothes. For example, I’ve got 3 pairs of boxers, 2 pairs of socks, and 4 t-shirts, and I still think I overpacked.

3. Know the Difference between Traveling and Living

There’s a big difference between traveling somewhere and living somewhere. I was in South Africa and India in December and January, and I intended to work a bit and travel a bit while there.

Big mistake.

First, the wifi was crappy – my place in Cape Town was supposed to have it, but didn’t. And India just generally had way slower and less ubiquitous broadband than I expected.

Second, Cape Town and India both had a lot of things to see, and since I had limited time in both places, I moved around a lot, which made it tough to establish a regular routine.

In short, I was trying to both work and travel, which meant I didn’t enjoy either or accomplish as much as I could have.

This experience made me realize that I now have two different sets of places to visit. The first list has places I will travel in but won’t bother working because there’s too much I want to see, and the infrastructure is not developed as much as I want it to be (India, Vietnam, Laos, etc.).

The second list has places I will live because I know the infrastructure is good enough to support a digital nomad lifestyle and I really want to get a feel for what it’s like to live in the place (Reykjavik, Brazil, Copenhagen, etc).

There is a third list of places that I’m not sure about that will merit further research (or an exploratory visit while nearby) in order to figure out whether they’re livable as a digital nomad (Budapest, Tuscany, Colombia, etc).

4. At the Same Time, Don’t Apologize for Living

I’ll never forget, I got an email from a friend of mine who is traveling the world that detailed her previous week’s adventures. She’d gone hiking at Lake Baikal, gotten arrested in Moscow and bailed out by her Couchsurfing host, and was up late partying and meeting all kinds of great people. She asked me what I had been up to. I was disappointed that my answer sounded so lame – I had left my apartment in Buenos Aires once a day in the previous week because I had my head down cranking on a project – until I realized that I was trying to build a sustainable lifestyle, not just take a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

People think you’re footloose and fancy free when they hear you’re living in an exotic place. Though you’re almost certainly having more adventures than they are, there’s a difference between traveling and living. Travel is great because you rarely have responsibilities and can throw yourself into exploring wherever you are. But living is different – you have priorities like paying bills, conference calls, deadlines, etc – you just happen to be in Shanghai or Mumbai.

If living nomadically is what you want, don’t be apologetic about it – remind yourself that you’re living, not traveling, and if you’re successful you’ll be able to do this for years while others who are enjoying no responsibilities right now will have to go back to the grind eventually.

5. Take Advantage of the Time Alone

Living in an unfamiliar place with a small or non-existent community can be challenging. You can use those challenges as opportunities to question assumptions you make, strip off social conditioning, and get to know yourself better. Reflect, write, meditate – do what you can to clear your mind and listen to your inner voice. It will help you pursue a life you truly want to live (this is also known as the art of inner travel).

Do you want to read more? Learn a new language? Meet new people? Get rid of bad habits, or try and develop new good ones? Ultimately, you can prioritize how to spend your time without demands or expectations from others, and this is an amazing gift.

Because I didn’t have a ton of social obligations in Buenos Aires, I was able to spend a week holed up in my apartment building a prototype of an web application that I may turn into a cash muse. Even better, for a week I got to focus on redeveloping my atrophied programming skills. That will help me down the road, regardless of whether the prototype turns into something real or not. If I was living in a place where I had tons of friends, that probably would’ve taken 3-4 weeks.

Any other things you’re curious about knowing as a digital nomad? Drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Very interesting stuff. Totally agree one has to face his own fears; for me, being a nomad is about being permanently out of your comfort zone – I enjoy that.

Oh, and you are the 2nd person I know recommending those ‘MEI Voyageur’ backpacks. Seriously considering getting one now. :)

Thanks for sharing!

Hey man,

First thing—if you want to know anything about nomading in brazil, let me know—-I’m doing it now.

How good is your carry on bag? Is it big enough to hold everything you need? Speaking of, it would be excellent to have a complete list of everything you’re carrying (my next trip I intend to not check anything in)

Also, do you have an itinerary of where you’re going to be in the world? Here’s mine: http://www.dopplr.com/traveller/maneeshsethi

Take it easy

Great post bro!

I tried traveling the last few months of 2008 while getting my company off the ground, and was totally stuck in that traveling/living purgatory without being able to enjoy where I was or get anything done. I’ve told mutual friends that I don’t know how you do it. So, I’m glad to hear it’s not just me :-)

Keep on keepin’ on brother, and I’m gonna come meet you one of these days when things settle down a little on my end.

Amen to #3 my friend. I though I could get some work done on my cycling trip last summer. Ha! Oooh, and I want to hear about your cash muse.

This is a great post!

You are so right–living in a new and interesting place is not the same as visiting it, and people do tend to assume that you’re leading a wild life of endless adventures abroad when in fact you might have a very quiet and satisfying routine that appears positively dull to outsiders. But having both traveled abroad and lived abroad, I have to say that I really enjoy the living abroad more. It’s more subtle in terms of the daily discoveries, but it also allows for the building of a community of people who make you think more about yourself and your decision to pick that place as your resting place (for the time being). My traveling days aren’t over, but I agree that it’s hard to sustain a work/travel balance for long periods, so I’ll be curious to see how and where you choose to see the world in the months ahead!

It was so great seeing you on your most recent trip to BA, and Tom and I look forward to connecting with you again in some unexpected and delightful corner of the world. (Life’s like that.)


thanks for the great comments everybody!

@paulo i agree! find it’s so much easier to be out of one’s comfort zone while traveling – that’s why i like it so much. i think the challenge is to try and do the same while living in familiar surroundings.

@maneesh the thing i like about having a small bag is that it’s a constraint on what i can carry and buy. my stuff *has* to fit into my carry on :) i wrote up a gear list just because you asked – expect it in the next couple of days! thx for the brazil offer – will def. take you up on it. and no map yet but maybe i will take another look at dopplr.

@jonathan ha, the travel+work combo is one i don’t feel like developing discipline for. would rather pick a place to live and travel to cool places nearby for 3-4 day trips.

@cesar still playing with the cash muse.. will def letcha know :)

@maya thanks! i enjoy the subtlety of exploring a place too and having it unfold gradually rather than trying to cram it all in. looking forward to catching up with you and tom in person in the next exotic place too ;)

I tried to picture you with any fears- couldn’t do it. I don’t think I will forget when you offhandedly mentioned in almost freezing Antarctic waters that you had never been in a Kayak before….

@kelly grin, i was definitely not 100% confident about the kayaking, but figured worst case i get a little cold and wet :)

[...] 5 Lessons I Learned After a Year as a Digital Nomad – The best piece of travel advice I've heard in a while: know the difference between traveling and living. If you're going to some place interesting, don't expect to have time to do other stuff like work. You'll just end up choosing between missing out on all the cool things to do where you are (and thus resenting your choice) or feeling guilty about not doing whatever it was you thought you were going to get done. [...]

[...] has been a daunting post I’ve wanted to write for almost a year. Maneesh asked for it yesterday, so I figured I’d do it [...]

I really like travelling across different countries and knowing culture. But i want to stay in one place and stay closer to that environment. :(

Cool! Glad to find another digital nomad traveler!

We have been a world-traveling digital nomad family going into our 3rd year now and @crustyadventure sent me a tweet about this post.

We have been to 4 continents, 29 countries & traveled 75,000 miles so far mostly by land but also using every type of transportation from freight ships to camels.

I can relate to some of it and some of it just does not apply to us. We almost never eat alone and our trip is set up for slow, green, deeply immersed travel that allows for connecting, traveling and living all at once.

I do wholeheartedly agree with traveling light and we often travel for a month or two at a time with just a small daypack each and that includes at least 1 laptop and homeschool supplies and even in 3 seasons of weather! ;)

We have managed just fine on 1 pair of smart wool socks and 2 pairs of underwear ( although our daughter has more) for the last 3 years! ;) It is amazing how little one needs.

We find this a fantastic, free way for a family to live!

Kareem: pretty cool; and you’re right, no matter how much stuff we carry it always seems like too much..

Mixing fun and business with near-complete location independence can be tough, but it’s worth it.

I’ve been tracking my expenses on my own “nomadic business life” driving around the US; haven’t been gone as long as you but I’m looking forward to future travels in the US and abroad…

@soultraveler3 – thanks for the comment, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and love it!

@taylor thanks for the link to your expenses, that’s super helpful!

Thanks so much for sharing Kareem.

I found #4 especially useful. I’m contemplating getting started on the nomadic travel and had trouble resolve the two ideas of traveling and living – but it makes perfect sense.

@keith happy to! let me know what other questions you have about starting up where I may be able to help.

You rock dude! I’m doing the same thing next month!

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