My grandparents, who were born and raised in the Soviet Union, had a very simple idea of success. They wanted to find one job and do it for the rest of their lives. For them, this was ideal because it allowed them to stay firmly inside their comfort zones.
They wanted life to be uncomplicated and predictable: Go to the office at 9 AM, make sure you look like you’re busy all day, stay under the radar and leave at 5 PM.
Two generations and a few decades later much has changed. I hate simple and predictable; I dislike offices; I don’t want to stay under the radar; and I love being outside my comfort zone.
Concurrently, 50 years ago, companies needed their employees to be gathered under a single roof to enable industrial production at scale. But today, they’ve begun to understand that as long as employees deliver results, their physical location and work hours don’t matter.
As a result, a new class of employees has emerged: people whose work is completely location- and time-independent aka digital nomads.
The digital nomad
Digital nomads spend their time travelling while working — taking freelance assignments from Bali, running their own businesses from Barcelona or working for an employer in San Francisco from Singapore.
There are thousands of us around the world. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.
It’s become increasingly clear that time spent in the office and productivity aren’t necessarily related. What one employee can achieve in four hours may take another one eight. Some are more efficient in the morning and others work better in the evening; some like working in an office, while others don’t.
At the company I co-founded, ChameleonJohn, we actually encourage employees to spend time away from the office. We’re confused when somebody asks if they can go to their friend’s graduation party or their mother’s birthday. As long as they’re delivering results, they are free to do whatever they like.
From a superficial perspective, it might seem as though digital nomads are terrible employees. They’re constantly flying around and are rarely reachable on demand. (Because nobody takes their phone diving or surfing.)
But as crazy as it sounds, I’d argue that the contrary is true.
People are much happier when they’re living where they want and spending their time doing things they’re passionate about. As a digital nomad, you can architect the life you want. If you like to surf, you can move to a surf town; if you’re into motorbiking long distances, you can go on a six-week-long trip through Vietnam.
A wonderful example of a company that had successfully hired hundreds of remote workers is MySQL. I’ve had quite a few discussions with their long-time CEO Marten Mickos who sold the company for US$1 billion in 2008. At its peak, the company employed 500 people full-time from 36 countries and didn’t have a single office.
He told me, “It is very easy to look busy in the office by attending meetings, answering emails and drinking coffee. But when you work remotely, the question you will be asked time and time again is: ‘Where are the results?’ Not only that, if we hired people only in the Bay Area, we would not have had the access to the best talent in the world, whereas now we can hire a person from literally anywhere. And we save tonnes of money on office rent.”
The happier your employees are, the more they’ll love their jobs, the more innovative they’ll be and the better they’ll treat your users/customers. It’s an undeniable cause and effect relationship — one that’ll eventually lead to more sales and greater profit.
Of no fixed address
I’ve been living this nomadic lifestyle for a little less than two years now. During this time, I’ve travelled to 25 countries. I’ve motorbiked through islands in Thailand and the Philippines, hiked an active volcano in Indonesia, learned how to surf, gotten my deep-sea diver’s license in the Gili Islands, explored new cultures and met dozens of wonderful people.
All through this time, my only possessions have fit into a small backpack. (Incidentally, it’s the same backpack that I used to carry to school back in the day).
Our society is obsessed with the idea of “ownership.” A quote by Dave Ramsay perfectly describes this phenomenon:
“People buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like”.
But I’ve found that owning things is simply impractical: You need to take care of it; it attaches you to a specific location and it’s usually more expensive than renting.
I also haven’t had a fixed address in the past two years because I rarely spend more than a month in a single country. This means that I’m free to go anywhere I want whenever I want. I can hop from Thailand to Japan to Indonesia without spending months selling my things and renting out my apartment.
I simply buy a flight ticket and leave.
As the idea of nomadism catches on, though, long-held attitudes towards the concept of ownership are also changing. Companies such as AirBnb (house/room short-term rent), Vinted (selling and swapping used clothes) and RelayRides (peer-to-peer car rent) are growing in popularity. Their benefits are manifold: from convenience for users to reducing the planet’s collective carbon footprint.
A widened perspective
After every one of my adventures, I give a lot of thought to what I’ve seen, learned and taken away. In Japan, I learned the value of selflessness and of caring deeply about the wellbeing of those around me. In Myanmar, I learned that happiness is in no way defined by the money you have. In Vietnam, I understood the importance of family.
These experiences certainly go a long way in shaping the way I approach my life, but they’re also becoming the basis of my professional thinking. They help me see opportunities outside the West and create products for underserved societies.
For example, I now know that Indonesia has the fourth-largest population on the planet with 250 million people. But these people are distributed between 17,000 islands, presenting a massive logistical challenge for new products entering the country.
In Myanmar, I can see a very big market of 65 million people with huge potential. The Internet is extremely slow and public transport is practically nonexistent. The country is ready for some big innovation after decades of oppression under the military junta.
Digital nomadism has the potential to make the world a little smaller, and digital innovation a little more inclusive.
There’s never a better time
Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
It’s the guiding principle I, Jacob Laukaitis, use while making important life decisions. It’s why I became a nomad.
If you’ve ever dreamed of exploring the world, this is the time to do it. It won’t require sacrificing your career. There are thousands of us ready to help you, tonnes of ways to make a living and countless things to experience and places to see.
The views expressed here are of the author, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email to writers[at]e27[dot]co