Have I become a digital nomad without even realizing it?
10 minute read
While I had great success as a therapist working with the expat community in Madrid, I always knew that I wanted a career that would allow me international flexibility. For this very reason I started my PhD a few years ago knowing it would allow me more opportunities to work in different countries, including the U.S. if I chose to return. However, I also knew I needed to improve my CV in order to make myself a more competitive candidate, which is exactly how I wound up doing a research internship in the Netherlands.
But, as anyone who has ever traveled for an extended time will be able to tell you:
¨All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.¨~Martin Buber
My own secret destination on this journey of coming to the Netherlands is this–I have unexpectedly and quite accidentally found myself living the life of a digital nomad. That’s right, just as I had hoped would happen by coming here, I have found that it is completely possible to work in a field I love wherever I may live. Just not in the way I imagined.
A few weeks ago a client commented to me that they’d like to become a digital nomad just like me. “Like me!?” I thought to myself with shock and surprise. They must be mistaken. I certainly was not a digital nomad. Psychologists can’t be digital nomads, can they?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in the two months since leaving Spain I, by all definitions, have indeed become a digital nomad. While online sessions used to make up about 10% of my client load, I’m now seeing everyone in this format. Previous in-person clients are surprised at how little they notice the difference and are even recommending me to friends who I have never before met in-person. On Wednesdays I take a break from my internship to do therapy and just last week I started the workday off at 9am seeing a client in Australia and finished it at 6pm with a client on the West coast of the U.S. Sounds like the digital nomad lifestyle, right?
Now, this surprising discovery that I had accidentally become a digital nomad was quite a bit distressing to me considering the entire premise of this website is based on doing things intentionally. There is a reason why it’s not called the ACCIDENTAL or UNINTENTIONAL expat. And that’s because I think some of the greatest struggles faced by many of my expat clients come from moving abroad or staying abroad “on accident.”
Now, you may ask, how does one make such a big life change accidentally? Well, it can happen because they didn’t know what else to do after college, they were avoiding something at home, they came with a partner without giving much thought to it or because they stay year after year largely due to the fact that they don’t have a better plan with what to do next. All of this lack of intentionality is the perfect recipe for living an unfulfilling life and for letting life happen to you rather than helping to write your own story. I can even speak to this firsthand because I was an unintentional expat myself for several years.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING INTENTIONAL
Taking part in writing the story of your life abroad means becoming intentional, mindful, and conscious of what things are hard, how to cope when shit hits the fan (or when you just wake up on the wrong side of the bed), and how to make the most of living abroad and ensure that anywhere in the world becomes your home. This is what being an Intentional Expat is all about.
And just as I worked on becoming an intentional expat, I knew that upon discovering that I was living a digital nomad lifestyle, I also needed to find a way to do it more intentionally. First, I needed to better understand what a digital nomad is exactly. Then with that awareness I could begin to reflect on the pros and cons and thus tools to embrace it.
In terms of the definition, a digital nomad is someone whose work does not tie them to a specific geographical location. While not always the case, it is often someone who 1) lives abroad or travels frequently 2) is an entrepreneur or self-employed. Discovering this helped me to realize that not only have I been living aspects of a digital nomad life for much longer than I’d realized, but that I had already done a great deal of reflecting upon and working on embracing the ups and downs of both aspects of this lifestyle.
Both living abroad and being your own boss tend to be overly idealized and glamorized thanks to an increasingly digitalized global world, social media and the “humblebrag.” But ask any expat or entrepreneur the truth and you’ll find that there is much less smooth sailing than you’d imagine. And while those waves might seem exciting at first, when you’re in the thick of the emotional pain it doesn’t feel so romanticized as it did when you were reading through other people’s blog posts.
ON LIVING ABROAD
One of my favorite quotes about this traveling or living abroad is this:
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.
That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” ~Miriam Adeney
I put a space between the two sentences of that quote for a very specific reason. Some days the second sentence resonates with me so deeply that I want to jump for joy and dance in the streets. What wonderful people I have met, what beautiful breathtaking sights I have seen. What a joy it is to have learned another language allowing me to connect with even more people around the globe, on both a personal and professional level.
But on other days, on those days that every expat or traveler will experience at some point, the first sentence rings so true that I feel like my chest might cave in knowing that I will never feel at home in the same way I once did. That the more you travel the more you become nostalgic for places which cannot be summed up by the term “homesick” because you are missing a combination of people and places and memories that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but which you know will never be capable of existing all in one place. These are the days where I find myself thinking how “ignorance is bliss,” and let my mind wander to ruminating about “What if I had never gone abroad…?”
However, when the waves settle I can clearly see that I would have never been satisfied with a life that did not allow me to go and explore overseas. And in this moment my mind and heart are able to bring together the two halves of that quote in bittersweet wholeness. Life abroad is so very hard sometimes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
ON BEING YOUR OWN BOSS
And in regards to the entrepreneurial aspect of the digital nomad lifestyle, it’s very much the same. On one hand, it’s amazing that I can use my education and experience to help people around the globe who seek online therapy. I get to set my own schedule, I’m my own boss, and I can do this work whether I am in the Netherlands, Spain, visiting family in Seattle or in some other corner of the world (as long as there is a quiet, confidential place with a good Wifi connection. Which would be a good time to note that while the beautiful location pictured along with this blog is not a place where I could actually provide therapy).
But doing work you’re passionate about also comes with a whole host of drawbacks, especially when you’re self-employed.
Setting my own schedule means the lines between professional and personal life become easily blurred. Not a good recipe for preventing burnout and maintaining friendships and relationships.
In my case, being my own boss also means that I don’t have colleagues, which leads to feelings of loneliness and isolation. One of the best parts of the internship I’m doing now is having coworkers I get to greet when I go into the office, people who ask me how my weekend was and who I can laugh with over lunch.
Also, if you plan to do work you’re passionate about, be prepared to come face to face with the glaring reality of your own procrastination tendencies. I do not believe that doing what you love is necessarily going to make you leap out of bed every morning ready to get to work. It’s still something you have to do sometimes. There are going to be days where you’d rather go ride your bike or surf or binge watch Netflix, and while your work schedule might afford you the flexibility to do these things more often than a typical 9-5, it can’t be the norm or you’ll never finish any of your work-related tasks.
Being your own boss requires discipline, facing (and coping with) the inevitable fear that comes with the unknown, and working on all the ways you may have previously self-sabotaged that you didn’t even realize before. The uncertainty and risks are enough to make many people throw in the towel. And I don’t blame them. Well-known entrepreneur Elon Musk says “Being an Entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” And his company’s recent rocket “explosion” points to another aspect of being your own boss that you need to be prepared for: failure.
But, just as being honest about the bittersweet reality of expat life sets you up to work on tools to embrace it, I think the same is true for life as an entrepreneur. I have to make myself go play at times when my automatic reaction would be to work, because I know that playing is good for my soul (and also productivity!). I have to invest in my social life and even seek out professional networking groups, not necessarily to get more clients, but just to ensure I have people to chat with outside of my work day. And I have to work on ways to challenge the fears, criticism and perfectionism that are behind my own procrastination tendencies. Reading books like Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” have been lifesavers in these areas.
Truth be told, there are days when I dream about abandoning the self-employed lifestyle and running away to a tiny island to work at a beach bar (and who am I kidding, I’d leave my dissertation on the mainland as well). But I know myself well enough to know that just as I wouldn’t have been content if I had never pursued the adventurous side of me calling me to live abroad, I also wouldn’t be fulfilled doing a job I wasn’t passionate about. I even have firsthand evidence to prove that to me. When I first moved to Spain my plan was to see if I couldn’t switch careers and teach English instead. But when my teenage students started telling me “that’s just what my therapist said,” during our conversation classes I knew it was time to get back to what I was really meant to do. If I ran off to an island I would just wind up doing therapy while serving cocktails. Like the American psychologist Abraham Maslow once said:
“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be”
IS THE DIGITAL NOMAD LIFESTYLE FOR YOU?
Before I moved to Spain the therapist I was seeing asked me why I thought I had to have an amazing life. I took her question to mean that I shouldn’t be live such an amazing life and should simplify things. This just goes to show how very much I was locked into my black and white thinking at the time. Looking back I realize she was not trying to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do (because good therapists don’t do this), rather she was trying to see whether I was living an amazing life because I felt it was what was expected of me or because in my heart of hearts it was what I wanted. Teasing apart the “shoulds” from the “musts” can be hard work, but it’s an important step towards living an intentional life.
There is no shame in choosing to build a life in the place that you’ve always called home or choosing to turn off your work brain at the end of the day in order to fully enjoy time with friends, family and your hobbies. But whether you’re going to live abroad or stay at home, pursue your passion or leave work at work, you have to do it intentionally. It needs to be a choice. You must be true to what feels right to you–fully aware that there is no right or wrong, and that no option is without its fair share of challenges.