Becoming a digital nomad is for many people a dream. I mean, who doesn’t want to work from the beach, while sipping cocktails in the Caribbean? Some people quit their job and dive straight in. I became a digital nomad, without ever aiming for it. This is my story.
When I was 14 years old my mom got me a job as a papergirl. After school, I would cross the whole neighborhood and within a couple of weeks, I knew all the routes by heart. I started timing myself and went on a personal challenge to deliver every time a little faster.
When I turned 16 I got myself a job as a cashier. Within a year I got promoted to the manager’s assistant, which meant that I was running the store on the weekends, managing a team of 7 people (most of them way much older than me), hiring and training new employees, writing the cash register closing report and dealing with customer complaints.
One year later I moved towns and switched jobs. I started cold calling as a salesperson for an energy company and not long after moved up to customer service, which involved a lot of less cursing, yelling and people hanging up on you.
I finished my studies and suddenly work was not a side job anymore, but I had become a ‘real’ employee (well sort of)
1. Employee: from study to work
At the age of 21, I received my Bachelor of Education. After helping my mother in her classroom for many years, I finally was able to run my own show. But unfortunately, and this probably is going to sound unbelievable, there were no jobs!
So I ended up as a substitute teacher for several school associations. I was taking over the classroom of unexpected sick teachers, who left a mess the day before or replacing teachers who just couldn’t handle their classes anymore and needed a break.
I was on call for five days a week, not knowing where I would go the next day. Some mornings I had to drive such long distances that there was only the afternoon left to teach.
You can imagine, not the most fun job. The good thing though, was that I had no commitment whatsoever to show up for staff gatherings, handle parent meetings, and neither did I have to write any school report.
After 3 years of substituting I got myself a job. I was so happy because I loved the school, the team was young and motivated and it was not too far from my home. Well, that didn’t exactly go as I planned.
Within a month, back in 2011, I broke up with my boyfriend, lost the house, my savings, my cat, and got fired before even starting due to a reduction in workforce and termination of the last person in. I lost it all, except my car, so I ended up putting all my belongings in my car and drove to Paris.
2. Expat: not a local, not a tourist
Suddenly I was an expat. A person who is living in a foreign country for a certain period of time. I got myself a job as an au-pair and as a language teacher and lived in the basement of the au-pair family. I went from a holiday once a year, to having a holiday the whole year round.
One year flew by and an opportunity in Shanghai came on my path, which I grabbed with both hands. There I learned very quickly that there are all types of Expats. There are the ones who are being sent out by their company, receiving an increased salary for the inconvenience of being far away from home including relocation benefits which often resulted in a fully accommodated (western style) house in a luxury green compound. And most of them receive on top of that also some amount of local language training.
And, there were the expats like me. Living abroad, but working for other expats. Living on a basic salary, often lower than I would be earning in The Netherlands, having to find their own apartment in the local suburbs to be financially manageable.
But I was hooked, to this life full of adventure, possibilities, and opportunities. In the years that followed I lived and worked in the most beautiful places and countries around the world and was truly enjoying my life.
One day in Indonesia I crossed paths with my soulmate, another human being roaming around looking for more in his life, and not long after, we continued the expat lifestyle together. We were living the life, full of adventure, discovering new places, having cultural experiences, meeting amazing people, and making incredible memories all over the world.
Another unexpected benefit of being an expat was, that it naturally pushed me into the path of self-development. Being confronted with so many different cultures and beliefs, I had to figure out who I am, what I stand for, find my values and my voice. The moment I moved abroad I didn’t only step into a life full of adventure, but also in the world of personal growth.
Of course, life is not all roses. Every move, every new country meant that we had to completely start all over again. Finding a job, apartment, doctor, and gym. Working out the practical things, such as administration, registration, and tax systems. And living from a backpack also meant that we had to invest every time again in basic things such as pots, pans, and towels.
But, there was nothing that could convince me to stop this lifestyle. Working in a job that I loved, while having the next hike or white sandy beach just around the corner for a weekend trip made me feel so alive. I felt that I could do this for the rest of my life. But then Covid-19 came.
3. Remote Working Expat: flexible, but stuck
At that moment we were living and working in Nepal, building our house on the top of a mountain in a tiny village overlooking the Himalayas. Covid-19 came, which resulted in a lack of food in the country. We decided to fly back to Europe for a couple of weeks and left all our stuff.
The weeks became months and the lack of clarity for our future became a frustration. We decided to take back control and looked around for a job. I found one in Bulgaria, we moved and I had 4 wonderful weeks as a teacher-director in the school, before going into full lockdown.
From an expat I had suddenly become a remote worker. I was still living abroad, but not able to work on location, nor travel. That was not my idea of fun. But, being used to the change we quickly adapted and discovered some wonderful benefits and opportunities. Suddenly I was able to follow multiple high-class training in America, Dominicans, and Estonia (which were usually only on location). Between the teaching and coach, I was able to expand my coaching and consulting skills and knowledge.
The non-travel mode made us rethink our future and another dream of us came back to our memory, starting our own company. Instead of traveling, we opened up our own company and went full into creation mode. But after 10 months we needed a change, the 1-bedroom apartment was becoming to small for 2 remote workers on call and we were craving adventures again.
We met a young couple with 2 dogs, owning a camper. They invited us to join them with our camper car for a road trip through Bulgaria. We thanked them politely because we didn’t have a holiday yet. They replied: ‘No worries, we also have to work.’
BAM! There it was, our belief straight in our face. We had always been traveling or working, scheduling our trips on the weekends or during the days off. We decided to challenge our beliefs and we left. We drove around Bulgaria for a week, stopped whenever we needed to teach or coach, did all the sightseeing, enjoyed the meals with the four of us, and had great evenings underneath the stars.
You know those moments that once you can see it, you can’t unsee it? That raised within me the question: ‘Why be stuck in one place if I can work completely online?’
It completely shifted our mindset and we put all of our work online. Coaching clients as a women empowerment coach, teaching children through my platform Dutch Club Online, managing the Dutch school in Bulgaria, supporting parents as a pediatric sleep consultant, designing templates for clients in Canada, and working as a virtual executive business assistant for a company in America.
We left Bulgaria, crossed all of Europe, lived a couple of weeks in The Netherlands, then a month in Belgium, while teaching, coaching, consulting, and supporting everybody online.
4. Digital Nomad: Work hard, play hard
Since we had found a way to blend work and travel we could now officially call ourselves digital nomads. But what is a digital nomad without a beach? So last September we took the plane and settled down in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
We were welcomed with open arms, by a great community full of entrepreneurs, travelers and free spirits. In a short amount of time, we made tons of new friends. Our weeks are filled with coaching, teaching, consulting, alternated with beach days, island hopping, cocktails, community events, and cultural celebrations.
Obviously, with great freedom comes great responsibilities and the so called challenges. Not being an employee, means no more monthly paycheck, no social security, no health care, no pension, and no financial escape. Which means that there is no time for procrastination, imposter syndrome, or social anxiety. You just have to do it, step out of your comfort zone, take action and create your future.
Even though becoming a digital nomad has never been the goal, freedom was. Freedom to spend as much time as possible on the things that I really love doing. Freedom to live in places that offer me opportunities to travel, explore and learn about new cultures and languages. Freedom to spend time with like-minded people that inspire me to do better and be better. Freedom to provide practical and financial support to locals and communities who are less fortunate than I am.
What does freedom mean to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.