The new normal

Photo by Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash

Part of the reason I moved to a full-time digital nomad lifestyle is that I expected something like the current situation to happen. Not like that though. I thought the system would slowly collapse under its own weight, but I didn’t expect such a violent crisis to hit all of it globally and expose all of its weaknesses at the same time.

Unfortunately, whether it is slow or violent, it doesn’t seem to make any difference when it comes to the resistance to change.

I just spoke with a recruiter, looking for a highly specialized profile involving corporate backend development and blockchain stuff, the kind of profile that is really hard to find, even in conditions where more and more people are going to lose their jobs and missions. And as soon as I told her I was fully remote, the conversation stopped almost instantly, because her client is looking for someone who can work remotely at first, but is expected to work on site quickly when all of this is over. Denial.

When will all of this be over? No one can say. How long can companies afford to make decisions based on the premise that it will all be over soon, and that everything will go back to the way they were? And even if the COVID-19 pandemic ends soon, when will the economic and social fabric of our world fully recover, if ever? No one can say that either. And perhaps more importantly, it was already hard for companies to find highly skilled software developers when everything was “normal”, do they really think it will get easier after this, when so many people will have been able to see that not only is remote work possible when you are a software engineer, but in most cases, it’s actually more productive and offers a better work-life balance across the board?

My point is the whole world, and especially the business world is going through the first stage of a process of grief right now: denial.

I’m convinced that there will be a before and an after COVID-19. That the world will never be the same. That some people and organizations will do everything in their power to try and put the cat back in the bag, but they will fail. Because the holes that this crisis is exposing in our system have been there for a long time.

Our nation states are simply unprepared for challenges like that, because they only think short term, pressured as they are by a capitalism and an electoralism without any vision. That’s why Trump’s administration dismantled the US’s NSC pandemic unit. That’s why the Belgian health minister destroyed a whole stockpile of expired protection equipments and never replaced it. That’s why all but a few countries now have to isolate entire populations because they don’t have the testing capacities to isolate only the infected ones.

Our nation states are slow to respond to any new challenge, because they are preoccupied by elections, and because they lost the trust and the education level of their populations a long time ago, so if they impose any drastic measure, people are defiant, they make up conspiracy theories and they take matters into their own hands as a way to cope with a situation they feel completely powerless about.

And finally our nation states don’t operate at the right scale, which makes them completely inconsistent. At a national scale, there is no way they can effectively tackle any challenge that, by essence, hits the entire planet. Whether it is climate change, business regulation, resource distribution or pandemics, they are completely incapable of handling these issues with any sort of consistency. And even if some countries try to do everything right, like New Zealand where I am stuck right now, where they went into full lockdown after hitting only their 100th case, with only 6 patients in the hospital, no death and after having closed their borders for a full week, they still pay the price for the absence of responsibility of other countries. How does it make any sense that as a citizen of France, being in New Zealand, I have to suffer the consequences of a decision I didn’t even take part in making, to elect a clown to the White House?

All of these things already didn’t make sense before this crisis, current events only make it more vivid. And yet, people still want to go back.

What’s the connection between the obsolescence of nation states and a company that wants to recruit onsite software developers? Everything! Because we are witnessing the most crucial transition the world has seen since the Renaissance. Because if it’s obvious at least to some of us that we cannot go back, that the old normal is completely broken to the core, then it follows that we have to invent a new one.

A new normal that is based on Globalism, this idea that whatever our different and rich cultures, languages, religions, histories and traditions, we are essentially all human beings, facing some of the same planet-wide challenges, born with the same fundamental Human rights, connected through the same global communication network, participating in the same global economy. And despite the vain hopes of a few protectionists, there is no going back on that, and that can be a good thing if we finally give up on one key concept: countries.

Countries are nothing natural or physical, they are just lines we drew on a map a few hundred years ago at most. They are a convention that served a purpose at a given point in history, to end the territory wars that created so much instability back in the days. But when a convention is obviously that flawed, and when the tools at our disposal have evolved that much, we must allow ourselves to invent a new one, or rather to adopt a more natural one, closer to the real world, in harmony with the planet we live on, as one species part of one global ecosystem.

Sure, that culture shift seems daunting, we have invested so much in the base structure of nation states, so much of our legal systems, of our currencies, of our cultures, of our belief systems are entangled with concepts like patriotism, nationality, limited international movements. Even more daunting is the fact that a lot of big organizations and governments are benefiting from this national division. Multinational corporations pit tax systems against each other, and exploit cheap labor in countries where people can’t leave anyway, forced to accept the conditions they are given. Banks thrive on the inconsistency of money regulation across different countries and totalitarian governments keep their power by blackmailing their population or using them as human shields. All of these have all the incentives in the world to keep us divided into abstract national units fighting against each other, trying to protect themselves.

In other words, to me, the problem is not the globalization of our economy, it’s the absence of globalization of governance that’s supposed to keep economy in check for the collective good of humanity.

What will currencies look like in the globalist world to come? What will companies look like? What will education and information look like? What will governance look like? It’s impossible to say at this point, but what is for certain, is that it won’t look like anything we already have.

We have to get over an economy based on credit-issued geographically-limited currencies. We have to get over pseudo-representative democracy as a means of governance. We have to get over corporations as a way to pull together financial resources to build stuff without any consideration for other forms of capital (environment, health, human rights, etc.). We have to get over old forms of education that gather 30 to 100 kids into a classroom for 20 years and then send them on their way after having shaped them into docile uncreative executors. We have to get over an information infrastructure that is so incapable of sustaining itself that it has become corrupted by greed and sensationalism instead of seeking and spreading the truth.

This is the sense of history, the transition started a few decades ago, but it just got a huge boost with this coronavirus. And there will be those who resist that change, either because they don’t believe it can happen, or because they don’t want it to. But their resistance is futile, because the cat is already out of the bag.

So I choose to embrace it. I embrace the uncertainty. I embrace having to develop new skills all the time. I embrace cultures from all around the world. I embrace moving all the time as if the entire world was my village. I embrace working as a freelance without any illusion of job security. I embrace thinking out of the box, dreaming of new systems, being flexible and open-minded to whatever comes next. Because this is a fascinating time to live in, and I invite everyone to embrace it too. Because you are in for a bumpy ride, whetever you do, so you might as well enjoy it.

How I went nomad

“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).

The view from my room in Swiss Escape

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.

The streets of Osaka

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.

Visiting the DMZ between South and North Korea. On the other side of that door behind this guard, the opposite of freedom.

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.

The jump

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: .

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

Butterflies and Hurricanes, Muse

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.

The entirety of what I own now has to fit within those two pieces of luggage

Fast forward…

…to today.

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.

Just a random group picture in an apartment in Seoul…

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!

Je Déménage… Dans Ma Valise

Il y a 3 mois, je publiais ce post dans lequel j’expliquais que je m’embarquais pour un voyage à  Osaka, au Japon, sur un billet d’avion aller simple. Et 3 mois plus tard, alors que je suis de retour en Belgique, il est temps de faire un premier compte rendu.

Premier élément: je viens de rentrer, donc le voyage a duré plus que les 6 semaines prévues au départ. Tout simplement, comme je m’y attendais un peu, l’expérience japonaise avec Hacker Paradise a été un succès. J’avais peur que la vie en groupe n’empiète de manière agressive sur mes besoins occasionnels de solitude et d’espace personnel, mais ça n’a pas été du tout le cas. L’organisation de ce groupe est ainsi bien faite que toutes les activités proposées sont optionnelles, que chacun peut vivre sa vie comme il l’entend, aux horaires qui lui conviennent et selon ses envies (ce qui fut d’ailleurs parfois un cauchemar pour les organisatrices). Donc je n’ai ressenti aucune pression, mais j’ai pleinement profité de la possibilité de rencontrer de nouvelles personnes, de refaire le monde avec des gens de tous horizons (américains, slovaques, roumains, polonais, italiens, français, suisses, hongrois, russes, coréens, péruviens, chinois, la liste est longue) et de partager de grands moments d’exploration incrédule (en mode WTF) avec tout le monde.

Bon, à  côté de ça, j’ai été un peu déçu par le Japon, et en particulier par Osaka, que j’ai trouvée inutilement complexe, coincée, fermée sur elle-même et manquant cruellement de bon sens. Mais d’un autre côté, j’ai apprécié d’autant plus l’expérience de vivre et de travailler quotidiennement dans un pays comme cela pour me rendre compte de tous ces éléments beaucoup mieux que si je ne l’avais visité qu’en simple touriste pendant 2 semaines.

Et l’expérience Hacker Paradise fut suffisamment concluante pour commencer à  faire germer dans ma petite tête des idées de pérennisation du mode de vie nomade. Et bien sûr, pour confirmer ou infirmer mon hypothèse, il me fallait une autre expérience, histoire d’être (suffisamment) sûr que dans un autre pays, avec d’autres personnes, l’envie resterait la même. Alors j’ai décidé d’utiliser mon joker, et de suivre Hacker Paradise sur leur destination suivante: Séoul en Corée du Sud.

Pour bien planter le décor, Hacker Paradise est une organisation qui voyage toute l’année, avec plusieurs groupes en parallèle, que les membres rejoignent et quittent comme bon leur semble, parfois même en cours de voyage. Sur le groupe d’une vingtaine de personnes qui étaient avec moi au Japon, 6 ou 7 ont suivi en Corée, et une quinzaine de nouvelles personnes ont rejoint le groupe. Au revoir compliqué avec certains et certaines avec qui des liens se sont inévitablement créés. Apprivoisement nécessaire d’un nouveau groupe avec une autre énergie. Et puis découverte d’un pays que pour le coup je ne connaissais pas du tout, dont je ne savais rien, sur lequel je n’avais donc aucun a priori ni aucun espoir.

Et après ces 6 semaines en Corée, rien à  faire: l’envie de voyager en permanence, et de partager un maximum de ces voyages avec d’autres citoyens du monde ne s’épuise pas, bien au contraire.

Alors que fais-je ici, en Belgique, me direz-vous? Pourquoi ce retour au bercail? Et bien parce que j’ai décidé de passer à la phase 3: le grand départ.

Le prochain voyage Hacker Paradise que je ne veux surtout pas manquer se passe en Afrique du Sud, au Cap, et ça démarre début novembre. Et comme maintenir ce mode de vie tout en continuant à louer un appartement et à payer l’électricité, l’internet et tous ces trucs coûte inutilement cher, il faut faire un choix. Donc j’ai un mois et demi devant moi pour vendre toutes les choses qui encombrent ma vie, rendre mon appartement, réduire mes possessions au contenu d’une valise et d’un sac à dos, et prendre l’avion.

Rien qu’en écrivant ces mots, une gigantesque excitation, en même temps qu’une grande peur m’envahissent. Mais je sais que la première me gardera en mouvement, et que la seconde me gardera en vie.

Pourquoi cette décision, me direz-vous?

Parce que je le peux

Ni femme, ni enfant pour compliquer ma décision avec des contraintes qui ne seraient pas les miennes. Et surtout un métier, un réseau et des compétences qui me permettent de travailler à  distance avec mes clients sans aucun problème.

Ces 3 mois de voyage avec 7 heures de décalage horaire avec mes clients m’auront permis de me rendre compte qu’avec un peu de flexibilité (une réunion de travail en pleine nuit, une fois de temps en temps, c’est un faible prix à payer), beaucoup de professionnalisme et une communication claire, rien n’est impossible, bien au contraire.

Parce que c’est le futur

Avec l’automatisation grandissante, le progrès exponentiel des innovations qui crée des métiers et les fait disparaître en quelques années, je suis convaincu que LA compétence la plus précieuse, c’est la capacité d’adaptation. Etre capable de se réinventer, de transformer son expertise, de rester authentique tout en acceptant les nouveautés d’une situation en perpétuelle mutation, c’est ça qui devient critique dans le développement d’une carrière. Et quel meilleur moyen de développer cette compétence que de se confronter volontairement et régulièrement à de nouvelles cultures, de nouvelles langues, de nouvelles expériences de vie, de nouveaux environnements?

Parce que “citoyen du monde” n’est pas qu’une expression

Elle est populaire celle-là. Et beaucoup se prétendent comme tels après quelques voyages touristiques de quelques semaines deux fois par an. Moi le premier: c’est ce que j’ai fait pendant de nombreuses années.

Mais après seulement 3 mois de ce mode de vie, je peux déjà voir l’énorme différence d’expérience qu’il y a, à quel point c’est plus ancré, plus riche, plus concret, plus réel.

Parce que le monde est beau

Il est tellement facile de se laisser embarquer dans les cycles d’actualité, de se laisser décourager par les stupides gesticulations d’un clown avec un renard sur un créne vide, de se désespérer devant les chiffres de l’emploi, la fermeture d’une usine, l’agression d’une mamie, la mort d’un chien écrasé.

Mais comme d’autres l’ont constaté avant moi, il est critique de prendre du recul, de lutter contre l’attrait du micro pour voir les choses dans leur ensemble. Il est compliqué de prendre soin de ce dont on n’a pas conscience. Et je suis convaincu que de parcourir le monde en long, en large et en travers va m’aider dans cette prise de conscience comme dans son activation.

Pour montrer l’exemple

Une des discussions qui revenait souvent avec d’autres voyageurs HP (Hacker Paradise), c’était à quel point il était difficile d’expliquer et de faire accepter ce mode de vie à nos proches, à nos amis, à nos familles. Certains d’entre nous avaient même été jusqu’à refuser d’aller à l’université, ou un job confortable dans une grande entreprise pour préférer cette vie de voyage, ce qui leur avait attiré les foudres de leurs proches.

Et si nous voulons faire évoluer les consciences, il n’en faut que quelques-uns pour montrer que c’est possible, que c’est riche de sens et d’opportunités, que les conventions et les traditions sont négatives si elles ne font que nous enfermer dans des modes de pensées qui nous handicapent, et qu’il est possible de vivre autrement.

Parce que je suis terrien

Mon passeport a beau dire que je suis français, j’ai beau vivre en Belgique depuis 13 ans, j’ai beau avoir adoré vivre à Montréal et m’y être senti chez moi… mon identité c’est ma planète. Les concepts de race, de nationalité n’ont absolument aucun sens pour moi, et je rêve du jour où tout le monde sera libre de bouger où bon lui semble, de choisir l’endroit, le gouvernement et l’environnement qui lui conviennent, et d’en changer régulièrement (ou pas), indépendamment de là où, ou de quels parents il est né. Je ne reconnais pas les droits du sol ou du sang, la notion de patrie n’a aucun sens pour moi, et je n’adhère absolument pas à cette histoire collective qu’on se raconte et qui voudrait qu’en fonction d’un bout de papier qu’on a dans sa poche, ou l’endroit où on se trouve physiquement, nos droits humains ou nos chances seraient si radicalement différents.

Alors explorer le monde et vivre comme si tout ça n’existait pas, même si ça doit me coûter des courbettes et des compromis de temps en temps, me semble bien plus en accord avec ce en quoi je crois, et ce que je suis, que n’importe quelle convention qui m’attribuerait un seul pays de résidence et quelques pays de voyage.

Et évidemment il n’est pas question de nier les différences et de dire que nous sommes tous identiques, mais bien au contraire, de réaliser que:

  1. Il y a plus de points communs (et moins de différences) entre moi et un bédouin du Sahel qu’entre moi et mon voisin français raciste
  2. Quand on cherche à les comprendre et à les expérimenter dans leur contexte, ces différences ont plus à nous apprendre sur nous-mêmes que toute la haine du monde
  3. D’une manière générale, on ne peut aller quelque part mené seulement par la peur de l’autre et de soi, et on n’a peur que de ce qu’on ne connait pas, alors apprivoisons-les tous les deux pour ne plus (se) fuir, mais pour aller vers

Parce que j’en ai envie

Magnifique improvisation du grand Edouard Baer sur Radio Nova

Je me suis moi-même beaucoup posé cette question ces 3 derniers mois. Finalement, en Belgique, j’étais de moins en moins heureux, de plus en plus engoncé dans des conventions qui m’aliénaient, de plus en plus frustré par une actualité déconnectée des réalités du monde, par une pauvreté de ma vie en termes de rencontres, de découvertes, d’émerveillement.

Alors certes, partir c’était d’une certaine façon fuir cette vie pour aller chercher tout ce qui me manquait ailleurs, dans d’autres environnements. Et si finalement tout ce qui me manquait était à l’intérieur de moi, et non à l’extérieur? Dans ce cas, tous les voyages du monde ne suffiraient pas à remplir ce vide.

Mais ce que j’ai réalisé ces derniers temps, c’est que même s’il est indéniable que j’ai encore un énorme travail à faire sur moi-même, pour m’ouvrir, pour panser certaines blessures, pour assumer qui je suis vraiment, pour oser plus, tous ces voyages m’aident. C’est comme si je savais que je devais apprendre à respirer, mais que c’était plus facile avec de grandes quantités d’air frais autour de moi.

Alors oui, pour moi c’est une quête. Une quête de moi-même et d’une vie meilleure, aidée par les vents du lointain et de l’inconnu, par la richesse du monde et de tous ceux qui y vivent.

Et face à tout ça

Evidemment, il y a mes amis, mes familles, mon filleul, ma dream team, ma BFF, tous ceux qui se reconnaitront et qui font à jamais partie de mon univers, même si je vais bientôt m’engager dans une voie qui m’amènera à les voir moins souvent. Ils connaissent mes aspirations et mes frustrations, et même si je sais qu’ils me soutiennent, je les sais tristes de me voir m’éloigner.

Et évidemment, même si le chakra du coeur n’est généralement pas le plus ouvert chez moi (comprenne qui pourra), je sais que cet éloignement m’a parfois pesé, et qu’il me pèsera encore lourdement avec le temps et la distance. Et il n’est pas question de mettre un mouchoir là-dessus et de faire comme si ça n’était pas là.

Mais nous resterons connectés, je continuerai à leur rendre visite aussi souvent que possible, à partager avec eux mes expériences et ma vie. Encore une fois, je ne déménage pas autre part, j’élargis mon lieu de vie. Et je sais qu’ils le savent eux aussi.

Et un jour on se fera une gigantesque chouille, avec tous mes amis du monde entier, on fera tous connaissance et on chantera Kumbaya autour d’un grand feu.

Bon allez, je retourne fumer, c’est de la bonne…

Le Pont de la Liberté, qui relie les deux Corées, tout un symbole…

Bonus: interview

Une des participantes de Hacker Paradise en Corée du Sud, Ana Lucia Rodriguez, péruvienne et espagnole, blogueuse voyage et marketeuse de son état, m’a interviewé pour son blog et sa chaîne Youtube. L’intro est en Espagnol, mais après l’interview est en Anglais:

Developing as a Contractor in Belgium

My experience

As a software developer, I have been freelancing since 2010. Before that I was an employee for a consulting firm for 5 years. And one of the things that pushed me over the edge was when I found the invoice my employer had sent to the company I was consulting for at the time in the office printer. It said they “sold” me for 650€ per day, 13000€ or more per month. Given the fact that my net salary was 2500€ per month, and even if you factor in all the taxes and social charges and all the other benefits, that was still quite a huge gap. And in addition to that, I was not free to buy the car I wanted or the laptop I needed. When I needed vacation, I needed to factor in the “loss” for my employer. And when I wanted to attend a conference somewhere, I had to ask for permission. And I’m not even mentioning all the things I had to agree with (company pension plan, eco-cheques, etc.) that had simply no value whatsoever to me, but I was forced to take them because they were fiscally interesting for my employer.

For all those reasons, after talking with other freelancers to carefully evaluate the risks and constraints of having my own management company, it appeared obvious that it was the smart move given my experience. And the thing is I’m not the only one to make the same calculation. I know plenty of senior developers who have quit the rat race, stopped being an employee and taken matters into their own hands. Sure it’s a lot of administrative pain, with the accounting and all. Sure every letter you receive from the SPF Finance (tax services) makes a shiver run down your spine. Sure it’s stressful to have to find your own customers, deal with contracts, plan ahead for your periods of inactivity, negotiate your rate for each contract… but that is nothing compared to the incredible freedom you get. Being able to choose your customers and projects depending on how much you need to work. Being able to choose how you pay yourself, how you train yourself, the tools you work with. All of that is really satisfying.

The ecosystem

That being said, when you are a freelance developer, there are 3 big kinds of customers in Belgium (and I guess in a lot of other areas):

  • The big corporations, banks and public institutions (European Parliament and Commission) usually have framework contracts and Preferred Supplier Lists with big consulting consortiums and firms that force you to go through intermediaries who take a 15 to 30% cut on all your invoices, no matter how long the contract is, and often for very little added value other than access to those customers.
  • The small companies are the most flexible and you can usually work with them directly, but they are the hardest ones to find and you have to negotiate a lot with them.
  • And then there are the startups. When you are in the ecosystem, they are quite easy to find, you can also work without intermediaries, the projects are by far the most interesting ones, and you get to work in really cool teams. But that’s where the funding is often the most fragile (“no I can’t pay my bills with shares in your non-funded startup”)

The fears

Recently though, I noticed a really disturbing trend with startups refusing to work with freelancers, mainly for a few reasons:

  • Most are afraid that a freelance developer will be less “involved” in the success of the company
  • Some even fear that a freelance developer will combine several customers in parallel and thus will devote less energy to them than an employee, as if freelance meant part-time
  • I recently heard companies being afraid that freelancers would have a harder time integrating into their team
  • And I’m sure some really look at the cost and think a freelancer costs more than an employee

The reality

It’s hard to know where these fears come from, but let me bring some counter-arguments to those.

First of all, when you are a freelancer, your very ability to find work and the best work depends solely on your reputation. You can’t hide behind the reputation of a consulting company or the manipulation skills of your business manager. It’s just you and your awesome work. If you leave a customer on wrong terms, if your work is not impeccable, and if your involvement is not up to par with your customer’s expectation, no employment code, no firing cost, no prior notice is there to protect you. If you don’t show dedication, you will get fired, fast, and your reputation will suffer, making it harder for you to find a new mission in the future, especially in the startup world where everybody talks with everybody.

Second of all, most freelance developers I know hate switching between projects at the same time. It’s very inefficient and frustrating, so most of us prefer working for months or even years for one customer at a time.

As for integration time, it is of course completely the opposite: when you have to change project on a regular basis, you have to get comfortable finding your place very quickly in a new team. Practice makes perfect.

Last but not least, about the cost issue, most companies, especially the smallest ones for which economies of scale are really small, only consider the salary cost. They don’t factor in the management cost of dealing with social secretariat, car leasing companies, medical insurance companies, training companies, buying and maintaining your own hardware inventory and so on. In my experience, unless you are a big company and you can make big economies of scale on these management costs because you have a lot of employees, there is little to no difference in terms of cost between an employee and a freelancer. In addition to that, you also have to factor in the cost of firing an employee with a lot of seniority, or keeping him around despite your non-satisfaction with his work because of this cost.

The benefits

But more importantly, I see plenty of companies neglecting the benefits of working with freelance developers.

  1. By definition, they have to manage their own company, find their own customers, negotiate their own contracts, so entrepreneurship is at the heart of everything they do. They understand what it means to manage a business, and they don’t expect to be told what to do: they take initiatives and think creatively.
  2. They come with an all-inclusive package: no need to worry about company cars, vacations, insurances, gear renewal costs or training. All of that is taken care of by the freelancer himself.
  3. If you are not happy with their work, or your budget constraints change, or simply your needs evolve, you can stop the contract very easily. Agreed, it’s the same on the freelancer’s side, so you’d better offer him the best working conditions possible to keep him around, but that shouldn’t be an issue, should it? ;-)
  4. Given the importance of their reputation and the desirability of their profile, most freelancers train on all the latest trends can bring some really cutting-edge tech to your company.
  5. A key asset for any freelancer is his professional network. So he knows a lot of developers, which can be incredibly powerful when you raise a new round of funding and need to grow your team quickly.

In addition to all those reasons, considering the fact that most experienced developers have already made the switch, if you don’t want to work with freelancers, you cut yourself from an important crowd of some of the best developers around. And don’t expect to bring freelancers back into an employee status: given how much it costs to kill a company in Belgium, and all the freedoms he would have to give up, I know very few freelancers who would come back to being an employee. It’s simply not worth it.

The future

As a futurologist, I also feel the need to mention the fact that in my opinion, the employee status as a norm and default situation is fading away. More and more people are realizing that they need to adapt to a changing work environment at an ever accelerating rate. You need to train for new skills, acquire new knowledge. The very notion of career is being questioned and revisited more and more regularly. And in some industries, software development included, it’s not uncommon to work for companies anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world. This trend is pushing more and more people to be independent workers, and even though governments and administrations are once again incredibly late in adapting to it, it doesn’t prevent us (even though it makes it incredibly painful sometimes) from doing it. It’ simply the sense of history, and it’s always frustrating to see so many awesome companies resist it, especially when they are supposed to be at the forefront of innovation.

Let’s talk about it

Given all that, I would love to hear more about the reasons why employers, and especially startup founders and managers don’t want to work with freelancers. I’m sure there are plenty of myths to be busted in there, and I’d be really happy to help. Also, if you are a freelance developer, and would like to share some interesting experience to share, let’s get the debate started in the comments of this post.

What a year!

Usually, this time of year, it’s time for looking back on the past months and reflect on what has been accomplished. Last year I didn’t even bother because I was simply too depressed. I spent a couple of weeks isolated in a chalet in Canada, I needed to regroup, I needed to flip a switch. And boy I did!

One year later, so many things have changed in my life it is scary to think about it… though energizing.

One of the biggest decisions I made during my cold retreat was to finally tackle the pain I’ve been struggling with ever since I was a child. I had started my first diet when I was 3 and struggled with my weight ever since. For the past three years, I have been working on the roots of this disease, of this malicious relationship I had with food. But it was time to face it head on and do something concrete about it. In January, I had my first appointment with a nutritionist at the Brussels Weight Loss Center, and it was the beginning of a long but inspiring journey. I was too far off to just go on another diet, the only durable solution for me was surgery, so I did what had to be done… and told the story of it (in French). The surgery happened in early July, and I’m very pleased to report that I have already lost 55 kilograms over the past 6 months… and counting. The goal is to go back to 100 and get out of medical obesity, so things are on track.

When I took the decision to have the surgery, I knew I needed some financial and professional stability, both to prepare myself and to recover properly. I couldn’t afford to live the stressful entrepreneur life anymore. So I accepted a new consultancy mission for a big bank. Sure it wasn’t fully aligned with my values and goals in life, but it paid the bills nicely and allowed me to focus some attention on my health. I started working there in early April this year and I learned a lot. Then a few months ago, a Belgian friend of mine who had moved to San Francisco and joined a promising startup there told me they might soon need some help on their technical team. It was not an immediate need, but I started dreaming of settling in this city that I love. Then a couple weeks ago he got back to me. That was it, they needed someone now! My relocation plans had changed a little (I’ll tell you how) but I really wanted to join them. I talked to him, I talked to the CEO, I met the backend developer… and the deal was sealed in enthusiasm. So starting in January, I’m back in the startup world, but not with my own company. I’m a developer for Instaply and I’m thrilled about it.

Last (not really), but not least, I told you my relocation plans have changed in the past few weeks. Here’s why. When I took the decision to have gastric bypass surgery, it was thanks to a lot of online resources and especially testimonials from other patients who told their story in videos from a few months before to a few years after the procedure. It really helped me ease my concerns about the surgery, its consequences, its challenges and the overall journey that was ahead of me. Lucky for me I understand English without too much trouble. But then it struck me that very few French-speaking patients dared to talk about it, which allowed a lot of false ideas to spread, and the surgery to be somewhat shameful in the French-speaking world. So I took it upon myself to create my own Youtube channel, my own community, my own blog, with a triple goal in mind:

  • Inspire patients
  • Educate their family and friends
  • Inform the general public

But there was one side effect I didn’t anticipate: those videos allowed me to find my special someone. I thought that after I would get back my self esteem as the result of getting back in my own driver seat, I would have a crazy “catch up” period, having fun, meeting a lot of people, getting out and not taking things seriously. But as often in life, surprises are even better. She had the same surgery I did, she watched my videos, she called me to ask questions and share her experience with me, and we quickly noticed we shared much more than an obesity journey. I used to find this concept very overrated, but now I can tell you with full certainty that I found my soulmate. She is everything I had never hoped for, she makes me feel more alive than ever, she makes me enjoy every moment of life, here and now, like I never could, and believe me when I tell you that’s quite a feat. Things went incredibly fast between us, but it was just obvious, and being far away from her became so painful, that I took the decision to move back to France, near where she lives, and be happy there. Now of course this relationship and decision to move come with greater responsibility too, because she has two kids who are going to be part of my life too. But even though I’m fully aware of the challenges ahead of me, I’m not scared. It’s fair! And this move is fully compatible with me working remotely from home for Instaply, so everything is just perfect.

So… new body… new job… new girl… and kids. What did I forget? Oh yeah! Back in October we went to TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin with the PeerTrust team. PeerTrust is this side project we had been working on for 18 months, trying to find a solution to this trust problem that made Kodesk (my first startup) fail. And PeerTrust failed to raise the enthusiasm that was necessary to keep us on track. So we decided to stop working on it. But on the other hand, it was obvious that we enjoyed working together very much, and none of us wanted to be a consultant for big companies our entire lives. That’s when it struck us: why not create our own agency, work for customers we chose, with our own tools and more importantly with our preferred team. Hence was born ZeTeam! I won’t go too much in detail about it yet, because things are still in their infancy, but suffice it to say that if you or someone you know is looking for innovative and pragmatic software solutions for their business, feel free to contact us or keep in touch. I’ll definitely keep you updated here in the coming weeks.

So there we go. 2013 is soon coming to an end. I’m on my way to enjoy the best holidays of my life, then 2 months between 2 jobs, finishing my mission for the bank and ramping up on my Instaply work, and then moving back to France with my sweetheart in March. Things are very exciting. So have a merry christmas, a happy new year, and don’t forget your destiny lies in your own hands. Be happy, and you will be even happier.