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How I became a digital nomad

I truly believe fate is in your hands. All too often the circumstances making us unhappy or unsettled in life are things that we have the power to change.

While you cannot change your mother or snap your fingers and have your anxiety go away, you can change your job, where you live, your boyfriend – these are things you consciously brought into your life, and the same things you can take out. As we grow up, it’s only natural to want new things and perfectly normal for things that once made you happy to no longer hold that magic.

In 2016, I applied to join a digital nomad community and in April 2018, I finished a year of remote working and have in the process created a better life.

I started to come to a realisation towards the end of 2016. I knew the following: that I was living in Los Angeles, I was working 12 hour days, I knew exactly what I was going to do every weekend, and I was absolutely positive that I was miserable and needed to do something about it. My soul was striving for something more. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew it wasn’t this. Knowing I’ve always wanted to travel for an extended time during my mid-twenties, I started looking at volunteer abroad programs. In the midst of my search, I was fed an Instagram ad from Remote Year – a company that promises that you can keep your job while traveling the world with a group of 50+ like-minded professionals. I had some initial skepticism, but the first application was so easy, I went for it.

Three rounds of the application process later, and I was formally admitted to the program Christmas 2016. But yes, the skepticism remained! Firstly, I didn’t hold a particularly “remote” job. I had been working at a large digital marketing agency for the past three years in a client relations role. When someone thinks digital nomad, they don’t picture the client-facing person to typically be on a plane every other week to see said clients. Secondly, Remote Year was relatively new at this time and there were only perhaps 3 sets of groups that had fully completed the year-long itinerary, so there wasn’t a lot of information that I could snoop out to see if the company was legit with what they promised or not. What I did know was that I could not keep on keeping on how I was, because it wasn’t doing anything for my mental or physical well-being. And that was enough for me to take the leap of faith.

Remote Year program placement staff were really accommodating with both my fears. I asked them quite literally everything, and the entire process leading up to departure helped ease my concerns thanks to their high level of professionalism. They helped me put together the business case to present to my boss and senior leadership as to why my globetrotting adventure would be beneficial to both myself and the company. With some negotiations and client approval, I was able to push through the proposal and lock in a RY program start date for May 2017 in Split, Croatia.

My itinerary was created with the understanding that I would be working on an East Coast time zone, even when abroad. Remote Year worked with me to craft an itinerary that made the most sense and would be least disruptive to my working day. This resulted in a program that would first spend five months in Europe, one month in Morocco and finish with a six month trek through South America. However, RY also has itineraries that go through South East Asia if that’s your interest, but for me, that would have been too much of a scheduling challenge considering a lot of my day is spent on the phone.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from LA, I was ecstatic about the new possibilities that would await me on the other side of the world and a year abroad. Before I knew it, I was in Split meeting my 50 fellow travel companions – what would be christened our “tramily” (traveling family) – and eager see if the promise of a productive professional travelling community could be actualised.

The first week was an absolute blur. Meeting and re-meeting everyone while adjusting to full remote work was a whirlwind, and we ended the week with our formal orientation. Remote Year staff informed us to expect three things for certain:

  1. Being a large group, we were going to encounter the typical group growing pains as we got to know one another: forming, storming, norming, and performing.
  2. We would constantly be pushed outside our comfort zones into our growth zones. Change and turbulence is to be expected; what you make of it is up to you. Above all, remember to stay true to yourself and establish boundaries to protect yourself from tipping from the growth zone to the danger zone.
  3. We’d leave the year with memories and friendships that will be with us for a lifetime.

We closed the orientation with introspection – why are we all here? What do we hope to gain? How do we expect to feel at the end of this experience?

What was clear to me from the onset was that everyone joined Remote Year for a reason. Some joined to find love, others to mend a broken heart, still others to challenge themselves professionally and to grow their professional networks, or simply to reflect on previous habits and to establish personal growth.

For me, I knew first and foremost I came on Remote Year to break my previous stale routine in LA. But being in LA was just one piece of the “routine,” the other was my thought process and behaviours. It was what I allowed myself to indulge in – surface level friendships that weren’t fulfilling, caring more about the end product at work than how we got there which damaged human relationships in the process, and allowing quick judgments to triumph over empathy. All of this is of course easier when in a new environment, but leaving an old environment behind is only half the battle. It took real work to actually change my thought process and behaviour.

The beauty of travelling in a digital nomad community for an extended period of time like Remote Year is that you’re in it together. While our goals for the year were different, we could all support one another in achieving our individual feats and work through challenges as they came along. And this is still possible even when you don’t necessarily get along with everyone in the group. With 50 people, there are bound to be differences and variants in backgrounds. It’s unrealistic to think that you will have 50 best friends at the end of the year. What’s much more likely is that you’ll find your core group of people, your rocks, who help you navigate through the bad days and help push you to your growth zone, while maintaining respect for each person you’ve come to know over the year.

This all shakes out via the forming – storming – norming – performing process mentioned earlier. The first three months were relatively peaceful, our “honeymoon” phase, if you will, where we’re all looking to do everything together and figure each other out. Around months 4-6, we stormed, and oh, so did the thunder crack. Cliques began to form, vicious rumours came to life, and people’s feelings were hurt. Then, as if overnight, or in reality, on a 26 hour journey from Marrakech to Buenos Aires, we put our differences aside and came back to our own in South America. Finally, the real magic comes alive in the last three months, when you have a strong sense of who everyone is, who excels at what, and what each person’s quirks are.

Above all, there lies an appreciation of just how wacky and different we are all – and that is beautiful. I think one of my favourite lessons from this year that I will cherish in my heart forever is that despite all our differences, there’s at least one thing you can find in common with someone else (and in this case, outside of just being on a crazy one year adventure with each other). And over that one thing, a connection can be formed.

In our tramily, there was an older, retired couple in their sixties from Texas. Aside from the demographic differences, I also didn’t particularly like some of their philosophies, and how they behaved while inebriated. And somehow, by the end of our program, I found a business mentor in the husband and a sassy friend with whom I can bond with over our love for karaoke bars in the wife.

We created these connections with each other over coffees, dinners, paragliding adventures, hikes, tours of underground cathedrals, weekend side trips….and work. In the midst of the traditional travel “glamour” and all that we were able to see and do, we still had a very real obligation back to the companies that granted us this amazing opportunity. What isn’t captured on our Instagrams are the 9+ hours logged in the coworking spaces, the midnight calls while in Europe, the continued dedication to providing excellence in our work. And for good reason – it’s boring. We don’t post when we go to the office every day, but we will when we’re engaging in an amazing or novel activity, which we were doing daily. Something that we all invariably faced in some form was the perception that because we were posting about blue waters, we weren’t working, but vacationing. But that is what the digital nomad promise is – the ability to do both. We were spending our free time differently. Instead of sitting in traffic only to come home and watch Netflix for a few hours before going to bed, we were watching national soccer games or going to the beach.

Fighting this stigma is but a small price to pay for all that we gained. I saw and did more than I ever thought could be possible in one year’s time. I accomplished more each week than an average person achieves in months. I camped under the stars in the Sahara Desert and flew over pyramids in Mexico in a hot air balloon. I challenged my comfort zone with what I thought I was capable of when it came to connecting with others that weren’t immediately like me and with physical feats like climbing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. At work, I gained a new perspective over what is and what is not important. I brought my learnings from my tramily to the workspace – realising that there’s more to work than just getting the project done, it’s also about connecting with your team. And finally, I channeled my happiness from outside of work into work. Throughout all of this, I made lifelong friendships with the people who helped me and carried me through this all.

At the end, I feel richer and more certain of myself as an individual. Removing parameters of a box I fit in previously by changing the scenery every month, I had to self-reflect more and define my own values and goals. I travelled the world as a digital nomad for a year and became surer of myself than I thought possible. I am not defined by a cityscape or routines I have set up for myself. I am an individual who can work through whatever life’s challenges are thrown my way. I am strong enough to work through them and grow from them in the process. Becoming a digital nomad wasn’t just a phase, it’s a philosophy on how to approach every aspect of your life differently so that it will best serve you.

I went on my digital nomad community adventure with Remote Year, who now also offers four month programs, but there are a lot of options out there for those interested in pursuing something more than the 9-5 grind. Other programs include WifiTribe or Unsettled, among others that you can find on the internet. Or if you prefer to do it solo, there are support online communities you can join like FB groups for Digital Nomads or the Digital Nomad subreddit that help provide support and tips.

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