When I grow up, I want to be a digital nomad: Why aiming to become a digital nomad is the wrong mindset for success

Let’s be honest. The idea of being a ‘Digital Nomad’ is very appealing.

Clacking away on your MacBook in a bar by the beach. You breathe in the salty air, exhaled by the crisp blue horizon that stretches across the top of your laptop screen slicing between white powdery sand and emerald water as clear as glass.

Sound good? Well, that’s why droves of millennials are looking to escape the sterile confines of brick and mortar and longing to live a life untethered from physical location.

Location independent.

It sure beats the maze of mundane cubicles and fluorescent lights where the only paradise in sight flickers from screensavers on deserted screens.

Is it really nomadic?

But… I mean, is it really nomadic? Do these nomads really drift freely across landscapes and continents always grazing on newer digital pastures?

I’ve always thought that the term Digital Nomad is as much as an oxymoron as ‘Shackled Freedom’ or ‘Caged Wanderer’. As digital has grown and evolved, it’s stickiness is hard to break free from. I’ve noticed that we’re now more tied to devices and constant communication that we ever have been.

Smart (and dumb) devices arrogantly beg for our attention with utter disrespect to the time or place. Impatient emails, curt texts, and cat gifs all yearn to be devoured by our connected minds.

Long gone are the days where we were truly able to break away. Lost is the era where the confines of nine to five protected our sacred personal time from commitments and people. Today, our digital life bleeds into all areas; personal, public, and intimate.

When you look at how digital has changed our lives, the idea of it allowing us to be nomadic seems quite strange. Yes, escaping physical location may be nomadic by definition however, being tied to digital media all day and night is anything but carefree. In a global digital market of skewed time zones and audiences yearning for more, the digital beast never sleeps.

It’s not a job

The other common misconception about becoming a digital nomad is that it’s not actually a profession or even a job. It’s a lifestyle. Saying, “I want to be a digital nomad” is like saying “I want an office job” or “I want to work with people”. It’s vague and non-descript.

Working by the beach on the Sunshine Coast, Australia.

If you want to be a digital nomad that’s fine… even great. However, your focus should be on building skills and learning more, not on ‘becoming a digital nomad’. That’s as absurd as saying “I want to become an office worker”. If you want to work in an office, that’s fine too but, you get my point!

If you yearn for the laptop lifestyle of cheap beers in tropical climates then you should be looking at what skills you have and plan on tailoring those skills so that you can use them remotely.

The beauty of digital is that there are thousands of courses online. You can skill yourself in anything from coding to creative writing from the comfort of your own home (or beach – trust me sounds great but, the sand will piss you off).

A good place to start is to look at what your passions are and then evaluate what your current skillset looks like. You can then work on improving that through personal learning and development. Your focus should be on becoming an expert in what you do, not just where you do it from.

It’s a saturated market

The reality is that it’s really hard to live a digital nomad lifestyle. Yet, this hasn’t stopped thousands of people trying. The digital landscape is saturated with Macbook bearing, tanned millennials, working from shitty WIFI in a bar on a beach somewhere.

Working with beer from Manila, Philippines.

They’re all ‘experts’ in SEO, SM, SEM, UX, CSS, HTML, CMS and any other digital acronym you can think of. My point is… you need to stand out.

If you don’t have legitimate skills, passion and work ethic, you’ll simply end up another seasonal nomad sitting in a Chiang Mai bar trying to grow your Instagram audience faster than the mould that grows in your AirBnB during the Thai wet season.

Why have an audience?

So, what’s the point in having a giant social media following? What if none of your followers will ever become paying customers? What’s the meaning of having tens of thousands of followers if you can’t monetize them?

It feels good, I know… it’s nice to be liked. But it’s all quite arbitrary if you plan on generating an income for yourself through digital marketing.

In the not-so-distant past, marketers would spend a lot of money on print ‘Direct Mail’ campaigns (some still do). This involved producing some sort of glossy flyer to deliver to mailboxes across the city. Now, if those marketers knew, with some certainty, that some of those houses would never become paying customers, then they wouldn’t waste their advertising budget of delivering a flyer that’s going straight in the bin.

But, things weren’t so advanced then. Marketing managers didn’t know the demographics of people who lived in the homes they were targeting. It was a let’s ‘throw a bunch of crap at a wall and see what sticks’ approach. Just a numbers game.

Now we are fortunate enough to be able to sell our services with a precision that marketers could have only dreamt of twenty years ago. We can target audiences based on demographics, interests, behaviours and more.

But, the interesting thing is, even with digital, I see nomads growing irrelevant audiences and boasting about numbers.

Having a digital audience is a great asset only if that audience is engaged in what you have to offer AND have the means to pay for your offering.

You may hashtag #InstaGood and get a lot of followers from your beautiful travel photos and that’s a lovely thing. However, in terms of taking being a digital nomad seriously and generating your own income, those followers aren’t going to help you unless they’re looking to buy your product, use your service or, if you’re planning on becoming a social media influencer (even then, brands want their influencer’s audiences to buy things).

So, the focus here should be building an engaged, relevant audience so you can target the right people to suit your digital offering.

Digital is a double-edged sword

Digital has given us great things and changed the world but, it’s also created new and complex problems.

Never before has it been so easy to reach large global audiences but, with that, comes a lot of competition and a great deal of mediocracy with everyone claiming to be a professional writer/blogger/photographer/digital marketer.

The traditional pathways to becoming successful used to be through hard work and producing quality. However, these pathways are barely visible under the dense undergrowth of digital evolution. Now, eager yet unskilled queue jumpers are riding digital glide paths to short-lived Icarus-like success.

Nomad life – taking in the sunset in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

If you’re not good at what you do, you’ll eventually be caught out. However, the sheer number of people (skilled and unskilled) yearning for digital freedom has created a lot of background noise and makes it difficult for talented folks to get ahead.

The digital world is simply too vast which allows people to sell mediocre digital products as they jump from client to client churning out clickbait articles to support their beach lifestyle and pay rent for their AirBnB.

Digital isn’t tangible and this can be a problem

Digital isn’t something you can hold in your sweaty palms… It’s limitless. When things are no longer a commodity, quality suffers.

It’s like photography. In the days of film, you had 24 exposures. Each frame frozen chemically on delicate film woven awkwardly onto spools in the back of our camera. Photographers pro and amateur didn’t want to waste a frame on something below average. So, we took our time. We thought carefully about composition before nervously pressing the shutter button.

The nature of analog required us to take more care in what we produce.

But now, with digital, we snap away carelessly and manically. We shoot in burst mode hoping that maybe 10 out of 100 images will be great.

My point is, to be a great digital nomad, you need to treat digital as a precious commodity and be an absolute professional with everything that you produce.

Still, want to be a digital nomad? Great! But just remember, you need a clever digital product based on solid skills and talent. You can’t become a digital nomad by definition in the same way you can’t ‘become an office worker’. You will likely find yourself either working remotely or in an office but that doesn’t define what you do.

So, next time you hear the term digital nomad, don’t get excited by the idea of working from a laptop on the beach and nothing else. Focus on your skills, your own personal development, your strategy and then design a great digital product that people will love.

Once you’ve found the perfect product, then you’re ready to take that remotely (if you wish) and I guess, then you can go ahead and call yourself a digital nomad (if you must).

At least you can call yourself that knowing that you have a quality offering that adds value to people around the world.

Good luck!

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