“Hello everyone, my name is Sebastien, and I’m a digital nomad!”
“Hello Se… Wooooooooooow! Wait… What? Say again?”
“I am a digital nomad: that means I don’t have a fixed home anymore, I travel around the world and work while I’m doing it.”
“Woooooooooow! And how do you do that? That sounds too good to be true. There’s gotta be a catch, right?”
“Well, not really. Technically, legally, I’m still a Belgian resident, my company is still registered there, I pay all my taxes in Belgium, but… I spend most of my time following summer, moving every 6 to 8 weeks, sometimes more, and I sustain it by working remotely as a freelance software developer for my clients in Belgium.”
“No way! And how did you come to that?”
“Well, let me tell you a story…”
A new concept
In 2016, I discovered this concept of digital nomadism, the idea that for knowledge workers who only need a laptop and an internet connection, you don’t really need to work in an office anymore. You can simply work remotely for companies that will allow it, or as a freelancer for clients who don’t really care where you are so long as the job is done. Many people were already doing it, and even though it had started off as a very difficult lifestyle, in the tracks of the 4-hour work week and other inspiring lifehackers, it had become easier and easier over the years with coworking spaces, AirBnB and even coliving spaces (coworking spaces combined with accomodations, NDLR). The only thing you needed was a knowledge job that could sustain your travels, making it possible for you to pay for temporary accomodation and flights. Some were doing it with dropshipping, others with ad-monetized niche websites, but one of the holy grails gigs seemed to be software development. How fortunate for me!
And this whole lifestyle looked very appealing to me right away, for several reasons.
First of all, I had always loved traveling, but after 13 years in Belgium (and a little 1-year break in France), I was starting to feel boredom settle in. I had always felt like a citizen of the world, not really attached to any specific country, but the cognitive dissonance between this global identity and the way I actually lived was starting to feel painful.
Second, as time went by and the world around me evolved, it seemed more and more obvious to me that adaptability was the most precious skill of all. Even though my specialty was not one of the most risky in terms of automation, I wanted to confront myself with new environments, new cultures, new contexts, and I felt confident enough to leave my comfort zone to sharpen my adaptation skills.
Third, as I was accumulating stuff, filling my 70 squared-meter apartment with gadgets, vehicles and things I used very rarely, I was feeling more and more anchored to the wrong things, bogged down by a weight that prevented me from being completely free. And I had tried to get rid of some of that stuff, but without any specific motivation, it was just easier to keep everything.
Last but not least, I was definitely not convinced by all the short term easy-but-not-so-easy guilt-based solutions to climate change and other global issues. To me, the only long term way out of these challenges was the emergence of a global governance model, whose prerequisite was the emergence of a global culture. And I wanted to live that.
But at this point in my life, experience had already taught me that I shouldn’t jump into this sort of transition without a little bit of cautious preparation and experimentation.
First things first, let’s expose the fears, since none of them is irrelevant, none of them should be kept under the rugs. All our fears exist to tell us something, and ignoring them is never the answer.
The one fear I had heard of the most throughout forums and Slack groups about nomadism, and that I could relate to, was loneliness. When you move regularly and on your own, it can be really hard to create connections with other human beings, whether they live in the places where you live for a while, or they are other travellers like you. Bonding takes time, especially for an introvert with trust issues like myself, so I could see myself suffering from that. Thankfully, since it is such a widespread concern, some services had already started to appear to address that. Coliving spaces were a first answer, as they let travellers share accommodations with other travellers, or locals for that matter, creating a de facto sense of community, even for just a few weeks. On the other hand, except if you made a really good friend in that amount of time, you also had to start over almost from scratch in every space. Another answer that looked way more promising to me was travel groups. In addition to helping you with other issues we will talk about later, they also formed those groups of travellers who could follow each other from places to places, and also curated those communities around common sets of values and lifestyles.
But then there was another fear, the extreme opposite one in fact. If it’s not a good idea to hide your fears under the rug, it’s also rarely a good one to forget who you are or try to disguise as someone else to fit into a new lifestyle. I had done that before, but no more. And for better or worse I am an introvert. I am not shy, but energy tends to flow outwards from myself to other people, which means I need some me time every once in a while to recharge. And I wanted to honor and respect that. Which meant I can support more lonely time than extroverts, but I also need to be able to take a step back from time to time. And some of those travel groups I just mentioned looked like a giant frat party, attracting a lot of twenty-something party-goers with their bad habits of peer-pressuring anyone who doesn’t follow along.
Last but not least, leaving my comfort zone didn’t mean abandoning all comfort. I wanted to get rid of my useless possessions, but I still needed a minimum level of physical comfort: a healthy and comfortable bed, a good shower every day, healthy and varied food, and enough rental services to still be able to enjoy some activities I really like such as drumming, riding motorcycles, watching TV shows, moving around, etc. And I certainly didn’t want to show up in the middle of a city or country I know nothing about, in the most dangerous neighborhood or in a place where I couldn’t get my work done in a productive way. I needed a safe place to stay, with a good internet connection, some mobile data on my smartphone, a comfortable coworking space and the ability to move around safely. I knew that I could find a lot of information online about those things, but I also didn’t want to spend too much time planning my trips and reinventing this wheel, especially as some of those travel groups I mentioned took care of all that.
Once that was laid out, experiments were in order. Before I even considered dropping everything and being on the road full time, I needed to check that I could find a way to take care of all my fears while staying true to myself.
My first experiment was in a coliving space in Switzerland called Swiss Escape. We were in early 2018, I desperately needed some snow and ski and I found this amazing place in Grimentz, in a very authentic village, with very comfortable rooms and workspaces and I just loved it. I stayed there for 5 weeks or so, enjoyed the company of Haz and Fanny, the managers, and was able to work way more productively than at home. All this fresh air, the ability to ski for a few hours in the morning before a good day of work, the absence of regular day-to-day distractions like TV or commutes, that was perfect. On the other hand, the social part of the experiment sort of failed because Swiss Escape was still new at that time, and there were not a lot of other guests staying at the same time. Me-time, check! Social time, meh! Spoiler alert, they have become much more popular now, so if you want to spend some time in Swiss Escape this winter or summer, you’d better book in advance. And because I’m a nice guy, you can even use my referral code to get a 40€ discount, whether it’s just for a few weeks (Sebastienescape!W), or more than a month (Sebastienescape!M).
On a side note, what made the experience a little less enjoyable than it could have been was that I had left my very sick cat at home, in the good care of a very nice lady, but still, I was worried.
So after this mixed-feeling first experiment, I went back home, took care of my little Yahoo until the end and started to foment my next plan.
The second experiment involved trying one of those travel groups, and more specifically one of them I had already successfully interviewed for in the past: Hacker Paradise. A year earlier, as I was still a full-time consultant, I had already applied to that program. In most of them, you don’t just book, they are not travel agencies, their main promise is to create a vibrant community, so they want to make sure you will fit into the culture of the group before sending you an invoice. And I had gone through that curation process of theirs, but it was not really compatible with my situation then. As that contract was now over, and I was free to move around without disturbing my work, I booked a first trip with Hacker Paradise in Osaka, Japan, in June and July 2018, with a one-way plane ticket, open for anything.
Long story short: Osaka, meh. But sharing that experience with them was absolutely fantastic. I met so many inspiring people from all sorts of backgrounds, ages, genders. The name of the program didn’t really do it justice as I shared weeks of amazement with developers, but also a school teacher, a nurse/erotica author, a musician, a real estate developer, digital marketers, copywriters, from ages 18 to 50+, from 10 different countries around the world, half men, half women. And not only didn’t I feel pressured into doing anything a single time, I found myself enjoying social time with the group more often than I thought. There was something I had not anticipated: discovering a new culture and a new context was fun, but discovering it with such a diverse group of people made it so much richer as I confronted my perspective to theirs.
After such a positive first experience with them, I wanted to leave my apartment in Belgium once and for all, but I wanted to confirm my first impression first with a second trip, so I folllowed Hacker Paradise in Seoul, South Korea for 6 more weeks. A few participants from Osaka followed in Seoul too, but most of the group was made of new people I had never met before. And this time, not only was the group awesome, diverse, inspiring and super respectful, but the place itself, Seoul, was amazing too. So 3 weeks into the trip, I had to make a decision. I couldn’t keep my apartment, my car, my motorcycle and all my stuff in Belgium, pay for rent, insurance, phone, internet back home, and still do trips like these. And by this point, it had become clear to me that I wanted more. Cape Town, South Africa was on the horizon, some participants who had become dear friends were going too, I didn’t want to miss that. Then came a moment of panic: there’s gotta be a catch right, there’s no way I can pull that off! So some old-timers of the nomadic lifestyle in the group, including my room-mate at the time, helped me to cool down, and advised me to create some sort of business plan, laying down all my expenses and revenues in an Excel document for the next few months, taking several scenarios into consideration, and planning as much as possible. And to my great surprise, not only was it feasible, I actually ended up with a positive number in the last cell, meaning that I would actually end up with more money at the end of the year than if I just went back to my old life.
Hence the decision was made: in early September, I went back to Belgium, started selling all my belongings, gave my notice for my apartment, and I had 6 weeks to do all of that before first attending a conference in Prague, and then joining Hacker Paradise again in Cape Town. It felt daunting at first, but call it a sign of the universe or simple motivation, after just 3 or 4 weeks, I was basically sitting in my empty apartment, waiting for things to be over.
Of course, material stuff was not the only thing I had “accumulated” in Belgium over 13 years. I had also made a lot of friends, some very close friends, I had even become part of another family. And even though it was clear for me that I was not leaving them so much as I was expanding my place of living, I had to make some plans to honor those strong bonds I had made. The first decision was to come back and spend a few days in Belgium on my way to other countries as regularly as possible. The second was to maintain those connections I held dear, even in the distance, using all the tools at my disposal. And of course I also wanted to say good bye and see you soon. So the day after I had given back the keys to my old apartment, I invited everyone to join me for a drink.
Two days later, I was on a plane to Czech Republic, feeling a mix of excitement, pride, sadness and fear like I had never felt before, but singing my soul out (in my head), those lyrics of one of my favorite songs: .
Change,Butterflies and Hurricanes, Muse
Everything you are
And everything you were
Your number has been called
Fights, battles have begun
Revenge will surely come
Your hard times are ahead
You’ve got to be the best
You’ve got to change the world
And you use this chance to be heard
Your time is now
This conference week in Prague was like a decompression chamber, an airlock to the other side, I enjoyed with my dear friend Said. Then he went back to Belgium, and I packed up all my belongings in my 15-kg backpack and 30-kg suitcase, on to my next destination, and first as a real full-time digital nomad: Cape Town.
Right now, one year and a few months later, I am back in Belgium for the holidays, and I have been to a lot of new places inbetween: Cape Town (South Africa), Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta (Thailand), Taipei (Taiwan), Bali (Indonesia), Budapest (Hungary), Belgrade (Serbia), Lisbon (Portugal), Tokyo again (Japan). I also went back to Osaka, Bali and Cape Town, and every 6 months or so, I go to Belgium and France to see family and friends.
I still develop mobile apps, web sites and backends for one of the clients I had when I started, and I completed a few projects and started working with another startup since last year. My business is working fine, I’m spending roughly the same amount of money as I was when I lived in Belgium, although on many more experiences and less stuff, and less regularly too.
Thanks to Hacker Paradise, I made some very good friends I bump back into randomly because just like me, they are a part of the HP Family and they keep coming back on trips. My social life is much richer than what it used to be in Belgium, and every place, every trip, I get better and faster at adapting to a new context. I join HP whenever they go to a place I want to visit. Otherwise I travel on my own for a few weeks, or join some HP friends on their own path.
I have learned a lot of things about travelling, applied quite a few lifehacks, created my own rituals, and I can honestly say I am now happier than I have ever been. I know that different people have different experiences of digital nomadism, there are always a lot of discussions about that on specialized Facebook groups and forums. And I know that my years of therapy, the surgery I had 6+ years ago, the business and network I built, my friends, my family, all of that enabled and shaped my experience today.
This life has its challenges: romantic relationships were not an easy thing for me when I stayed in one place, it has certainly not become easier now that I’m moving all the time and I’m part of this still very niche subculture. And living a somewhat original lifestyle makes you question a lot of pre-conceived rules and ideas when it comes to what you are allowed to do or should do in some situations, so there is a little bit of risk associated with going through a lot of grey areas.
But overall, I can’t help being proud of myself for having dared to reinvent my own lifestyle, according to my personality and desires, away from conventions and traditions.
On a regular basis, I still get annoying questions from people who ask me when I will come back to a more “normal” life, back to my senses, back to their side of civilisation. And sometimes it’s hard to explain that I can’t even understand the question, because you have to live this life at least for a while to really get how liberating it can feel. By the way, if you feel like trying for yourself, of course I can only recommend giving Hacker Paradise a try, and there is a referral link in all the mentions to them in this article to get a $100 discount on your first trip.
That being said, I need to pack up for my next destination, Buenos Aires, plane leaving in a couple of days. So…
See you somewhere around the world!