Traveling vs. Nomading

About 9 months ago, I decided to give life as a digital nomad a try, and about 4 months ago, I actually did it and physically left home. It’s been a very interesting journey, to say the least. I’ve spent my time exploring New York on foot for hours on end, teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Vilnius, Lithuania, and finally coming to the now obvious conclusion that absinthe is really not for me when in Prague.

I was lucky enough to have several of my best friends visit me while I have been hither and yon across the globe – life on the road DOES occasionally get a little bit lonely. There is nothing like having a late night talk with your best buddy, abroad or at home.

But there is another unexpected benefit I had from my friends visiting me. I came to realize the distinct difference between traveling and nomading (yes, I just turned that into a verb).

9-5, yesterday.

For most people, including myself not too long ago, traveling is a very special experience, and usually goes hand in hand with a break from WORK. Most of us have to spend almost all our awake time working, and most of us have to do work that we openly, or secretly, despise. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. If you don’t agree, please indulge in the following thought experiment: if you didn’t need to work for your income, would you still do what you are currently doing? Really? Would still spend 10 hours a day working at the hospital, sucking up to the chief resident? Would you create backlinks for the online marketing agency that used to employ you, just for the love of it? Does publishing academic papers on authors from early modernism sound like too much fun to resist?

I doubt it.

Granted, of all things you COULD be doing, what you are currently doing might still be the best thing for you. But that “best thing” is still a long way from a great thing, especially when compared to having the imaginary option of not having to work at all.

In essence, almost everybody’s job is a kind of mental mutilation – you don’t want to do this, but you don’t get to choose.

Hence the epic excitement of traveling: not only do you get a much needed change of scenery, because your job usually binds you to one place, but you also get to do NO work at all! For a short time, you get your freedom back – you are like a day-release prisoner.

Interestingly, this short term freedom comes with a certain inescapable setup – almost all my friends I recently got a chance to observe display the exact same travel behaviors. It’s a 4-stage process that covers the whole of the emotional spectrum.

The 4 Stages of Regular Travel Insanity

  1. Huge buildup: at this stage, you can’t wait to get away from home. You are done with work, you are done seeing the same people every day, you are done with LIVING the same day over and over again. You are like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” – you just want this to end and your vacation to begin.
  2. Euphoric release: finally, you are free! At first, you almost can’t believe your luck. What a relief! And what wonders to behold – wherever you look in this novel place that is your vacation resort, there is something new and exciting to discover. Everything is NEW! It feels like someone switched the movie that is your life from black and white to technicolor.
  3. Frantic activism: now that the short lived golden age has arrived, you want to cram it with as many amazing and magical experiences as possible. Like a chicken with your head cut off, you run around visiting point of interest A, checking out sight B, eating at famous restaurant C. You are frightfully aware that you have only a limited amount of time to make everything happen before work, i.e. hell, starts all over again. You must to get the most out of every second of freedom.
  4. Disorientation and restlessness: after a few days of frantic activism, something strange happens. Towards the end of your allotted time in freedom, a certain listlessness occurs. You don’t care about visiting any more tourist sites, the new scenery has lost its shiny appeal, and you actually wonder what people back home are doing. It’s the strangest thing: you are done with your day-release adventure and you now want to go back to your cell, please.

I find this completely astonishing – and I have done this myself! Even back then, I couldn’t understand why I would surrender my temporary freedom happily. Why would I look forward to being a working drone again – knowing I would be hating it all over again in just a couple of weeks?!?

The First Reason Why Nomading Works Differently

Interestingly enough, nomading feels very different from this cycle of heaven/hell, freedom/prison. I think this is for two reasons. First, nomading is not work-free time. For an actual nomad back in the day, traveling wasn’t a laissez-faire life. On the contrary, you would always be busy setting up shop, hunting and gathering, repairing and building, taking care of the tribe, etc. The modern version of nomading is very similar in that respect: you take your work with you, and it is as much part of your day as kicking back and enjoying your new surroundings. Work never leaves you, it is just…portable.

The Second Reason Why Nomading Works Differently

The second reason why nomading doesn’t result in your typical travel schizophrenia: oftentimes, when leaving the safe haven of 9-5 for nomading, you also start to question what you want to do with your time in the first place. For many modern nomads that means choosing to do something they truly enjoy – something they would enjoy even when not getting paid for it. So by nomading I am now free to write my different blogs in hopes of one day becoming the next Tim Ferriss…

But seriously, these two things oftentimes go hand in hand, and I just recently met my first few real-life nomads for whom this actually seems to be working out. They certainly seem to have a much more meaningful relationship to their work than the average person caught up in the “11 months of slaving away – 1 month of release” cycle. If your work truly matters to you, if you are positively nuts about your projects, you don’t need a month off a year – you don’t even need weekends. Work stops being work – instead of draining you, it energizes you.

 Time CommitmentType of WorkEmotional Cost
Traveling11 months of prison - 1 month of complete freedomMostly economically drivenProvides emotional stability (when not traveling), but threatens with boredom
NomadingConstant interplay of work and free timeIdeally passion drivenFacilitates excitement, but threatens with financial and social insecurity (rollercoaster)

I hope this article didn’t rub my friends the wrong way. And I certainly don’t want to give off an “us vs. them” vibe: us, the elitist digital nomads vs. the poor regulars tied to a desk. If anything, I would be the worst person to do so; after all, I’m still just playing at being a nomad. So far my blogging career hasn’t led to any mentions in the New York Times. I might be back slaving away with everybody else sooner rather than later.

If anything, I just wanted to point out, borrowing from Krishnamurti, that being well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society is not a sign of health. And to get away from that, you have to truly understand what we call “normal.”

The 9-5 existence with its 4 weeks of day-release per year is completely insane at heart – this life model actively denies you happiness by emotionally and intellectually numbing you to the point of no return.

And once you have had a glimpse of something better, you can’t help but despise the treadmill with a passion. There just has to be a better way.

Until next time.