Why Being a Digital Nomad Sucks (to Me)
For countless years—does anyone know how many?—has it been a thing to romanticize the lifestyle of digital and global nomads, of people who live and work remotely. Very remotely, ideally, in other countries and on other continents. I’ve lived that life in my one and a half years of travel around the world, and by some definitions I still live it given how much work I do in cafés (elbgold, of all Hamburg roasters) and on the road.
That last definition, however, of merely working from places other than one’s office or home, we’ll discard here. Let’s instead use the one of working in places other than one’s current city (which covers everyone who has no single one city). That’s where I say, nomadism sucks.
Why? Let’s first note that exceptions will prove the rule. If you know my writings then you know that I like to exaggerate for emphasis.
Now, why? Because nomadism means a hit to one’s relationships: It separates oneself from the people one cares about, and from the ones who care about oneself. Nomadism means deterioration of one’s connections. Contrary to common belief, nomadism hinders the option to build and grow new long-term relationships.
It gets worse when the nomad doesn’t seek to make exactly this experience, to test themselves and to perhaps try to create relationships elsewhere even without a good prospect of them being lasting. After all, the family will still welcome oneself back, friends may not entirely disappear, either, and any acquaintances made on the road, that’s all bonus. Maybe that’s okay. And we should not forget about simple unawareness, that the nomad may not even think about a possible strain to their relations with other people. But that leads me to this bitter taste that I perceive around nomadism these days.
It gets worse because I cannot help thinking that nomadism may be glorified escapism.
That nomadism may have become the highest, most socially accepted, most respected art form of the flight reflex.
That nomadism may be harmful.
A Personal Story
This is leaning much on the exaggeration side now; remember my note that I love exaggeration for emphasis. Maybe it helps when I add something from my own experience. When I set out to travel for a long time then it was for adventure. As I had lived in North America, wanted to return to Europe, and found myself between very different challenges, that “made sense.”
But that’s also the surface story. Personally, I had not glorified nomadism back then—but I was completely f’ed in my dealings with people. Stuck. I was miserable. I was free-wheeling between a need for high performance at Google, thousands of activities, and the unbelievable demands, as I had felt them, of life in Silicon Valley: Be great at what you’re doing, be successful, be active, be healthy, be fit, of course, look great, be social, be generous, be happy. (For some that genuinely works—but I worry that for others, for many, this lifestyle constantly tears at the seams of their personality and their mental well-being.)
My relationships had turned shallow, and that had only been a continuation of a life of shallow relationships. Genuinely warm and compassionate on the surface, with a great pull to go deeper, but still shallow. Always on the defense—yet our defenses, something to get back at elsewhere, are truly offenses. I had learned this early, in a childhood and adolescence I long deemed to have consisted only of emotional abuse, when I had felt left alone from earliest age, neglected so much that at some point I believed that physical abuse would have had imparted a greater value on me, and that having been an orphan would have been favorable, too, for it would have made clear (and not leave 19 years—at the age I moved out—of hope), that I had no one—and it would not have created the illusion of a family that would be there for me. (I don’t think anymore that my upbringing had really been that traumatic.)
Relationships were shallow, then, and even though there had been people I’m confident I could have risked the depth of authentically close connections with (Julia, Merci, Vijay, most of all 👋) there was no thing and no one to hold me back, then. And so I set out, to become the blissful traveling working nomad, digital and global and whatnot.
What leads us back to the topic of nomadism is the suspicion that nomadism may also for other people not be a positive action (to actively seek something), but a negative one (something we do to avoid).
First and foremost, now, I cannot conclude anything from my own experiences. Despite all skepticism that logic applied to everything, that’s too hasty a generalization even for my taste. But my own experience feeds a suspicion. Or the suspicion:
Nomadism can, in the words of Harry Sullivan, serve as a delicate, complicated defense operation. On the surface it may look like an adventurous, freedom-loving, self-made entrepreneur lifestyle. But behind it may well lurk feelings of insufficiency, lack of healthy intimate relationships, and despair.
I hesitated for a moment whether to go into yet more detail or not;—but I will want to be brief from here and say that that doesn’t have to be the case, and even if, that it doesn’t need to be “bad.” I myself have been in an unfortunate situation with my own nomadism, not seeing it for what it was, and ultimately it was to my benefit. The same may hold true for others, or for all of us. Does that lead to a contradiction? No—life experiences seem to have several sides to them. But it means that today, I’m skeptical about nomadism, and personally I’ve begun to cherish my relations so much that I wouldn’t want to jeopardize them. Not these days. Not anymore. And therefore being a nomad, in my eyes, at this time, sucks.
Incidentally, a friend of mine shared quite a different perspective. I find that one interesting, too.
(This is one of five “lost” articles that I only published in 2021.)
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead—currently manager for Developer Experience at LivePerson—and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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Find adventure anywhere? Try 100 Things I Learned as an Everyday Adventurer (2013). During my time in the States I started trying everything. Everything. Then I noticed that wasn’t only fun, it was also useful. Available at Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.