When you see the phrase digital nomad, who do you picture?
For most people, the answer seems to be this: Someone who quit their job to travel the world.
I know because I get this misconception a lot. People will comment in posts and send me emails about how they admire that I quit my job to travel the world.
But here’s the thing:
Yes, I travel full-time. Yes, I have a location-independent career. Yes, I have been bouncing around the world for over seven years. Yes, I’m currently writing this to you from Switzerland, where my balcony overlooks a hill-surrounded lake.
But I did not quit my job to travel.
I’m too risk averse. I’m too much of a planner. And most of the other long-term, successful nomads I know have similar stories. We didn’t quit and take off. We did something a bit more planned out.
For me, that planning meant that quitting my job, starting my freelance business, and traveling the world were three separate things.
I quit my demanding agency job in 2011. I had managed to burn myself completely out and I was struggling with my health – both mental and physical. The decision to quit had nothing to do with seeing Italy or working from France. It was about getting my life – and health – back.
And even then, with such a lofty, vital goal, I didn’t do it lightly. I decided I wanted to freelance, but I wasn’t comfortable with the financial risk of just quitting and going freelance immediately. So instead, I got another job. A less demanding job. A better paying job. A job where I had hour-long lunch breaks every day and evenings to myself.
And then I hustled. I used those evenings and weekends and lunch breaks to do a business plan, build a website, reach out to friends and colleagues about my new work, and take on freelance clients.
The ad agency I’d just quit became my first client. A former colleague brought me a second client. An online ad became the third.
I told myself that I’d quit my full-time job when I had either A) so much work that I couldn’t take on more clients without quitting or B) enough in the bank to live for a year without any income.
I hit A around the five-month mark at my new job and I quit before the six-monthiversary.
So, where does the full-time travel come in?
Months upon months later.
Because my story isn’t about quitting my job because I wanted to see the world. I quit my job in order to work for myself. I quit my job for flexibility. I quit for my mental health. I quit because if I was going to work weekends and evenings, I wanted those hours to count toward something I was building for myself. I didn’t want to burn myself out building someone else’s business. And ultimately, I quit for my mental health. I quit because of how I felt. I quit because when my therapist asked if I wanted to quit, I burst into tears of relief and didn’t stop sobbing for ages.
I quit to save myself.
Did I love travel? Absolutely. Did I want to travel more and did I see that as a perk of self-employment? Yes. But full-time travel didn’t come into the picture until I’d been self-employed for a bit and realized that I still felt deeply unfulfilled.
I was working less hours. I had more time for myself. My job was far less stressful than my agency gig had been. But I was still struggling with the depression and panic attacks that had recently been diagnosed. I was still mourning the loss of my first significant relationship, the deployment of a military friend, and the cross-country move of another friend, which all happened in succession and left me feeling deeply alone.
I knew I loved travel. I knew it shook me up and forced me to re-think things. I knew it was a sort of re-set button for me. And so after I had my freelance business rolling right along. After a year of supporting myself, creating stability. Then, I started to think about travel.
And I guess that’s my point:
There’s a perception that digital nomads all got fed up one day, gave their boss the finger, and strapped on a backpack. Then – through some combination of bravery and magic – they started raking in the cash as a blogger/influencer/[insert trendy-sounding maybe-job here].
But for those of us who’ve been doing this thing long term, there are so many different stories. Stories of people who quit high-stress jobs and figured out the rest on the road, sure. But also stories of people who already had online jobs – programming, graphic design, copywriting – and who made a plan to make the travel thing work while also making work work. Stories of people who started businesses and waited for some stability before boarding that plane to Bali or Brasov or Berlin. Not to mention all the people who retired and then took off on an indefinite quest.
There’s no right way for every person to go about any lifestyle change. So this isn’t me saying nobody should ever quit their job to travel. But this is me saying that’s not the only path and, for most of us, it’s not a sustainable path.