Before I get started with this post, I just want to quickly note that 99% of my content is overwhelmingly optimistic and positive.
Any longtime readers already know that, but I’m just referencing this for anyone who might stumble upon this article and encounter my writing for the first time.
Now, that positivity is not a front. My proclivity for inspiring others to lead happier and better lives is not fake.
It’s because I’m genuinely a very happy, optimistic, and blessed person.
And I share many elements of my FIRE lifestyle because I believe financial independence and early retirement can greatly improve quality of life for most people by taking ownership of their time and authentically pursuing their true passions.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the message.
This message, keep in mind, is coming from someone who has been building online businesses since 2011. I live abroad. And I also travel. So it’s not like I don’t have a clue here. I’m living that life.
I relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand almost two years ago.
Life here has been nothing short of phenomenal.
My first year was filled with love, laughs, amazing experiences, personal growth, and the forging of new relationships.
One of those new relationships, of course, is with Oh. I’ve been dating her pretty much since I arrived.
But I’ve also made many, many friends. And I’ve met countless people as they’ve come in and out of my life.
Meeting so many people and getting to know them a little bit has obviously exposed me to the “digital nomad” movement, seeing as how Chiang Mai is kind of a mecca for this.
A digital nomad is someone who builds a business (or set of businesses) online and travels the world. As long as they have a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, they can make money. It’s this supposed dream life where you quit your job, make money doing something relatively easy/fun, and travel full time.
Except it’s not that at all for many of these people.
As I’ve discussed before, Chiang Mai, despite its reputation and all that is truly great about the place, is actually a city that’s filled with wantrepreneurs.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve met some successful people who are doing some really amazing things. It’s just that they’re the exception rather than the rule.
The vast majority of people I’ve run into (and I’ve met a lot of people coming through Chiang Mai) are actually struggling (even if they don’t yet realize it). And they almost universally end up going back to wherever they came from (US, Australia, UK, etc.) after their sojourn abroad.
I’ve lost count of how many people who have gone back to the homeland and picked up normal jobs again after spending a year or so traveling and giving the digital nomad thing a go.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.
But I don’t think it has to be this way.
Earning My Admiration
I actually admire the digital nomad movement. I never really fit into the “9-5 till 65” mindset at all, which is what first led to chasing FIRE. And it later led to leaving the United States altogether.
I couldn’t imagine jobbing it up all my life, then finally retiring when I’m too old and tired to finally enjoy it. In my humble opinion, that’s a total waste of my life.
But even though FIRE is great, living in America and being surrounded by Americans who have a totally different take on life wasn’t all that pleasant. I respect all perspectives and lifestyles, but that respect isn’t always reciprocal.
Also, America is globally expensive. And I felt surrounded by this growing PC agenda, which is completely destroying the States from within. Paying a high COL for low (and deteriorating) QOL is crazy. The motivation to leave was strong.
Once I started to realign my expectations and definitions regarding what “home” actually is, moving abroad became the obvious next step for me.
However, it took no courage for me to leave the US and move to Thailand.
I was already financially independent, earning enough passive income to cover a very nice lifestyle here in Chiang Mai. And since I started working online in 2011, I was already an experienced entrepreneur with established businesses, too.
There was no downside for me coming here.
That’s not the case for a lot of digital nomads fresh off the plane, however. Most of them are totally new to working online. Some have some savings. Some (more than you might think) are getting support from their parents. But they don’t have an unlimited runway in front of them.
While I wouldn’t say that moving to Chiang Mai was solely, or even largely, motivated by the prospect of meeting fellow entrepreneurs, investors, or independent thinkers, I was definitely looking forward to the idea of living in a place that wasn’t permeated by the American groupthink hive where it’s “work and shop till you drop”.
Living in Chiang Mai has been a wonderful breath of fresh air.
Even if many of these young, naive digital nomads won’t ultimately end up doing some of the things they’re setting out to do, they at least have the courage to think outside the box, leave their home country, and give something unique a good shot.
However, there’s an aspect to this digital nomad scene that I think is holding a lot of these people back.
And it makes the concept of being a digital nomad a terrible idea.
Being Digital Doesn’t Require Being Nomadic
The issue, in my opinion, is right in the name.
That means you’re digital (working remotely, online), and you’re simultaneously nomadic (constantly traveling around).
I don’t have a problem at all with the digital part.
Yours truly lives a very, very digital life. I enjoy spending a great deal of time with my various online businesses. And most of my actual wealth is in digital form. In fact, I’d go so far as to say my digital avatar is more representative of who I am as a person than my physical self.
It’s instead the nomadic part of the equation that I think is a terrible idea.
The very term for these people implies that it’s required, or at least strongly recommended, to be nomadic if/when you’re digital.
This implication is totally unnecessary. Bordering on dumb.
The very nature of being digital means you can take care of business anywhere. You don’t have to incessantly bounce around to different countries every 60 days (or whatever).
This might be a shocker, but just stay with me a second.
You can (and probably should) be digital without being a nomad.
Let me be honest.
Most of these digital nomads I’ve met are just starting out. I noted that earlier. They’re trying to make their first $1,000/month online. The whole reason for leaving their home country in the first place is to give themselves a bit of a breathing room (a runway), which involves going abroad to cheaper countries so that they can stretch capital and time in order to scale their business(es).
Going from $0 to $1,000 per month online is tough. Giving yourself every possible advantage makes perfect sense to me.
But the constant bouncing around – i.e., being nomadic – is totally counterproductive to this.
Making money online is challenging. Traveling constantly is also challenging. Doing these two challenging things at the same time is a terrible idea.
Become A Digital Expat Instead
A lot of these young, energetic entrepreneurs would be far better served by contemplating being an expat rather than a nomad.
That’s where the real gold is.
See, moving around every 60-90 days is extremely harmful to everything it is that being digital and scaling a business should be about.
And I’ll give you five reasons why.
First, there’s the cost.
Traveling around isn’t cheap, even if you’re hacking your way past some of the expenses. If you’re on a limited budget because you’re trying to scale your business and income, this additional cost is a huge problem that should be avoided. One of the biggest reasons people become a nomad and leave their home country (avoiding high overhead) is largely or even completely mitigated by the nomadic aspect of this lifestyle they take up. It’s silly.
Second, there’s the time.
Traveling requires a lot of time. There’s the planning. Picking spots. Figuring out visas. Scoping out good locations where you can do what you have to do. There’s the research regarding language, transportation, accommodation, networking opportunities, food, etc. This is valuable time you should be spending on your digital business.
Third, there’s the limited productivity.
If you’re spending all of your focus in these ancillary areas of life that have nothing to do with being digital, you’re not able to zone in, flow, and be 100% productive. Even here in Chiang Mai, where I live full time, walking up to my usual coffee shop and seeing it full (which means I have to find a different place that day to do my thing) takes me out of my zone a little bit. That’s because I love my structured routine that maximizes my productivity. And that’s a molehill compared to the mountain of limited productivity when you have to constantly figure out a new routine (where to eat, where to sleep, which coffee shop/co-working space to visit, etc.) every couple months in totally different countries.
Fourth, there’s the “keeping up with the Joneses”.
I’ve met a few digital nomads who have actually admitted how exhausting it is to keep up with the nomad scene. It’s ironic. These people want to escape the rat race back home, but they end up entering a rat race all over again – except it’s now passport entries and YouTube drone shots instead of a house and a car. Chris Dodd, a one-time prominent digital nomad who I met here in Chiang Mai a while back, has been open about this phenomenon. And now he’s back in Australia (indefinitely, as far as I can tell).
Fifth, it’s a vicious circle.
Building on my last point, these digital nomads often get caught up in this vicious circle. This is especially true for those that rely on at least some of the income from the content they create as a digital nomad. They end up needing to create amazing content (usually via YouTube videos and/or blog articles) showing their travels, which locks them into a very nomadic lifestyle (because that’s what the viewers/readers expect). And so their bread and butter ends up being the very thing that exhausts them due to what’s honestly unsustainable. Not only that, but it’s tough to actually enjoy the moments and take your time with the travel because you’re so busy creating the content that feeds you the income to live this life.
The solution to all of this is to take the digital part of the equation and just set up shop on a more full-time basis in one place. Eliminate the nomad part of things altogether, at least until you’re more established and can actually enjoy that travel for yourself (rather than to keep up with anyone else or create content).
Become a digital expat.
Or stay where you’re at and still be digital.
Working online and staying in your home country aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both concurrently. That’s apparently what Chris is doing.
That’s what I did for years. I worked online in the US. I didn’t need to move abroad to become digitally successful, nor does anyone else.
Or move abroad, become an expat for a while, scale up, then move back to where you came from. Take advantage of temporary geographic arbitrage.
Or stay as an expat, travel back to your home country every once in a while, and also travel around your new region intermittently after you’ve already become relatively successful.
Or become FIRE, like I did, then permanently move abroad to live a happier and more interesting life. This is, in my opinion, the best solution of all.
Personally, my long-term plan is to travel for a bit in the spring, when Chiang Mai is particularly hot. I’m essentially going to become a very young snowbird and leave Thailand for a bit every year when it’s most uncomfortable.
I think it’d be interesting to spend springs or summers in a different country every year.
Explore in a slower, more enjoyable, and sustainable manner. These countries aren’t going anywhere. They’ll still be there after you put yourself in a better economic position.
Whatever. There are many ways to go about it.
Well, every way except the way that most digital nomads are going about it, which is traveling around in a constant and unsustainable manner.
This article wasn’t meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.
It’s the opposite. I’m attempting to provide insight that I believe can help others become more successful.
Of course, people usually prefer pats on the back, not constructive criticism. So this post probably won’t be winning me any friends.
In the last two years I’ve been living in Chiang Mai, I’ve noticed how many of these people end up going home after living like a rock star for a year. That one year might have been really cool to show on YouTube, but it’s just not sustainable – or even a very thoughtful way to go about things.
If you instead take the digital part of the equation, then exchange expat for nomad (or stay where you’re at), you’re likely setting yourself up for more sustainable and long-term success.
And after you get yourself scaled up and making a little bit of money online, you can then travel around.
But you’ll actually be able to enjoy it because it’s not a costly, temporary, and exhausting thing that you’re trying to keep up with.
Nobody has to take my advice. Indeed, it doesn’t behoove me to see more Westerners setting up shop long term in Chiang Mai. That would only serve to make the place more expensive and crowded. If I wanted to be surrounded by Westerners, I’d move back to America.
But I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some honest and helpful reflections after living here and witnessing this phenomenon play out.
Lastly, I want to note that those who have already scaled up a business and are successful are free to nomad it up. This article is directed toward those who are just starting out, which is seemingly where most digital nomads are at (because of such a high failure rate).
What do you think? Are you a digital nomad? Is this a better long-term solution? Why or why not?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
P.S. If you’d like to become financially independent, which could more easily allow you to pursue online ventures from anywhere in the world, check out some awesome resources that I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!