Out of Office, Indefinitely: A Q&A on Becoming a Digital Nomad
If all you really need to do your job is a good internet connection, why go to an office every day?
For that matter, why live in one fixed place when you could travel the world?
Xylia Buros was curious about this idea. She left her desk job and gave up her apartment in Portland, Oregon, to set out on a new life as a "digital nomad," someone who only needs an internet connection to do their job, allowing them to travel the world and work at the same time.
Originally Xylia thought that she'd try out this lifestyle for a year, but already at nine months in, she says she feels like she's just getting started. As her "location independent" business as a freelance marketing, PR, and communications consultant has grown, Xylia has been able to travel to England, Scotland, Italy, Thailand, Japan, Colombia, St. Martin, Antigua, Portugal and Spain.
Xylia and I first met in our writing and literature classes at NYU, and years later reconnected when we ran into each other in Portland. Recently, when I heard about her new adventures, I asked if she'd share her experience and advice on becoming a digital nomad.
Q: When you began your journey, did you intend to become a digital nomad? What went into your decision to travel and work, versus simply taking time off to travel?
A: Yes, I definitely intended to be a digital nomad. I had enough savings to take a few months off without working, but I knew that starting a freelance business from scratch could take several months before becoming profitable, so I started my freelance business before I left Portland.
I learned this lesson ten years ago, when I quit my job as a record label publicist in Chicago to travel Europe for three months: I ended up running out of money and then had to return to the U.S. and start all over again. It wasn’t that pleasant, so I knew I had to have more of safety net this time.
My goal is to sustain my travels and nomadic lifestyle with my freelance work and return with the same amount of savings that I had when I left, or ideally even more. (Not saying that’s happening yet, but it’s a goal!)
Another factor is that I’ve built my career over 15 years and I like what I do. I like helping design firms grow their businesses and succeed. I enjoy writing and editing copy for websites. For me, traveling without a purpose or without giving back or working in some way makes me feel like I’m just a consumer. It’s nice to relax for a couple of weeks on a beach without any responsibilities, but after that, I think that people like to feel useful and that they have a purpose.
This nomadic lifestyle is a prime opportunity for personal development and growth, and I intend to keep improving my business, creating multiple income streams, giving back to the communities I visit, and inspiring others to follow their dreams more ardently.
Q: What was the most difficult or surprising part of making this change?
A: For me, it was realizing how inextricably tied we are to our capitalist society (in the U.S. at least). Nothing in our modern society makes it easy to take off, break ties, and travel abroad for lengths of time.
For example, I have spent 2-3 hours dealing with AT&T [telecommunications company] just to have them hold my phone number while my cell service is inactive. There’s so much misinformation out there and it’s very frustrating.
The digital nomad lifestyle is becoming increasingly common (I’m about to leave on a Nomad Cruise ship with 150 others!), but it’s still rare enough that seemingly simple things like deactivating your phone number for six months takes away hours of your time that you could be using for billable work.
Also, in the U.S. under the Affordable Care Act, it’s mandatory to have health insurance for the whole year if you’re in the country for more than just one month per year. So I pay for my own U.S. health insurance even though I don’t live there, just to avoid a huge tax penalty.
For me, renting a car and driving across Italy, flying into Cartagena, Colombia, or train traveling all over Japan by myself are far less intimidating than dealing with deactivating my phone service, freelance tax laws, and health insurance bureaucracy.
Q: What do you like most about what you’re doing now? What do you dislike (or still need to figure out)?
A: I enjoy my freedom very much and am extremely grateful that I get to make my own schedule every single day. I work a lot but I enjoy seeing one new sight a day, or having a fun experience, wherever I’m living/visiting at the time. It could be visiting a museum, time at the beach, trying a new local food, or having coffee with a friend.
This lifestyle is also more active, which I really appreciate. Sitting at desk jobs for nearly 15 years was very soul-crushing for me and doesn’t do any favors for anyone’s body or posture. The digital nomads I meet tend to be very athletic and intentionally balance their work with some kind of movement, whether it’s yoga, hiking, kite surfing, or running.
Things I dislike, in addition to the bureaucracy surrounding living a location-independent lifestyle and not having an address or phone number, include loneliness at times, the challenge of balancing work with sightseeing, and the physical toll of long-term travel. (I’m traveling with two carry-on-sized backpacks, which can cause shoulder and back pain.) Also, travel planning is basically a part-time job, so you have to factor that into your schedule, along with client work, sightseeing, and personal time.
Q: The digital nomadic lifestyle seems primarily geared toward the young and single. What would you say to mid- or late career professionals – maybe with a family – who would love to try this out?
I don’t personally know any families who live the nomadic lifestyle, but I know there are countless ones out there. I follow a few families on Instagram that travel around South America or the U.S. in their vans, working odd jobs, and showing their young children the world. There have been a few families or people with dependent children that have attended the Nomad Cruise before, so I know they exist.
I think it’s a matter of having an open mind and not being afraid of being nonconformist. I personally think that children can learn much more about the world by growing up bi- or multi-lingual, seeing incredible sights, sailing around the world at a young age, or through any other “alternative” lifestyles that focus on world cultures, empathy, diversity, and education.
Q: What first steps would you recommend to someone who wants to test out this lifestyle?
A: If someone is interested in this lifestyle but hasn’t traveled that much before, I’d recommend first taking a trip entirely alone – whether it’s a weekend, week, road trip, or longer adventure of some kind. See what makes you feel safe or uncomfortable. Try talking to strangers and trying new foods. Start with some language classes.
Another thing I’d highly recommend is starting your freelance work while you still have the comfort of a full-time job. Building your freelance work or “side hustle” while being gainfully employed can help you save extra money and also grow the brand for your new business.
Also, there are so many resources out there now for digital nomads (see below). That wasn’t the case six to ten years ago. Now there are countless websites, blogs, and organizations that focus on this precise lifestyle.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: I would just say GO FOR IT. There are so many inspirational people out there already living the same dreams that you have, along with career coaches, therapists, inspirational gurus, etc. that can help push you. I don’t need to summarize all their lessons here, but basically, my belief is that life is very short and unpredictable and that you should do precisely what makes you happy. I know a lot of uninspired people who fell into their current jobs and lifestyles and who are just moderately satisfied. I also know a lot of unhappy people who have big dreams that are thus far unrealized.
After I started this lifestyle and finally began meeting nomadic workers like me, I discovered people who are not only satisfied with their lives, but who are also extremely vibrant, savvy, active, confident, and positive. It was honestly a revelation for me. They’re smart, brave, and adventurous, but I honestly don’t think there’s a special gene you need to have. They just decided that a steady 9-to-5 lifestyle wasn’t right for them and started making moves.
Once you start taking action toward this lifestyle, there is a snowball effect. That’s why I tell people that my timeline for this lifestyle is indefinite because I have no idea what will happen in a month from now. Many people, perhaps the majority, don’t like that kind of uncertainty, but I thrive on it. I think it’s invigorating, exciting, and makes me feel like the agent of my own life. My only regret is not doing this 10 years ago.
A list with notes by Xylia...
BOOKS AND BLOGS
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
The Suitcase Entrepreneur
Vagabonding, by Rolf Potts (long-term travel bible for many - pre-"digital nomadism")
Chris Guillebeau's many books - The Art of Non-Conformity, $100 Start Up, etc.
Travel as Transformation by Gregory Diehl
The Paradise Pack
The Professional Hobo
"None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you're carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There's no time for anything else." -- Christopher Walken
"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default." -- J.K. Rowling
"You are a victim of the rules you live by." —Jenny Holzer, artist
"Become who you are" -- Friedrich Nietzsche
"Being around inspired, visionary, enthusiastic people who are living their truths is one of the fastest ways to massively transform your life." -- Jen Sincero
Are you curious about becoming a digital nomad? What questions would you have for Xylia or other digital nomads? Post them below!