April 14, 2020

Are Digital Nomads Better Prepared For Self-Isolation?

The challenges of global living equip people with unexpected resilience.

Are Digital Nomads Better Prepared For Self-Isolation?

If you’ve seen the hashtag #DigitalNomad on Instagram, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this group of people wouldn’t cope very well during a global pandemic. Young, bikini-clad women model the latest sunglasses on Bali’s beautiful beaches, desperate to sell you a course on how you can follow in their footsteps. Hashtag “ad”, amirite?

When I first started living and working as a nomad, the movement had already existed for a few years. I became the first UK journalist to cover it during my time at The Guardian. Since then, I’ve watched its meteoric rise feeling equal parts dread and fascination.

Six years on the road have taught me that the most interesting and impressive nomads almost never subscribe to the hashtag lifestyle. In fact, for the most part, they’re keen to keep their destination plans—and fashion sense—to themselves.

For most people, the experience of going nomadic is nothing like the images you see online. You’re more likely to spend your days in coworking spaces and your evenings taking calls from other timezones than you are relaxing on the beach.

When it comes to dealing with 21st-century isolation, though, nomads might be the best case study we have right now.

Isolated in paradise

It takes around two weeks for any given paradise to lose its shine. Sure, you have work to do, but you find some extra time to explore and socialise at the beginning. You need to settle in here, after all. Before you know it, though, the novelty of the new place has faded away. You’re acclimatised. This is just your life now.

Once the excitement dies down, you note—disappointed—that you’re exactly the same person you’ve always been. You have all the same faults and flaws. You’re frustrated by all the same things you were in your previous life. The change of scenery really hasn’t changed much else. Drinking with fellow travellers did not lead you to self-actualisation.

Existential thoughts flood your brain. Is this where I should physically be in the world? Am I achieving the work/life balance I wanted? Would I be happier if I was somewhere else?

Oh well. Here today, elsewhere tomorrow. That’s the deal.

Digital connections

During those first few weeks, you make some new friends. It feels good to connect with people again, exchange your best stories, share the oddness of life with others. But most nomads spend only a month or so in a place, and it takes time to develop deep, lasting friendships.

By default, all your nomad relationships come with egg timers attached, like that episode of Black Mirror. It makes you feel lonely. You feel a bit more listless whenever somebody leaves.

You end up doing regular Hangout and Skype sessions with your family and friends back home. You need to feel connected, and you have the technology to do that. You schedule the video calls like you do client meetings. But the distance—the reality that you can’t just swing by—just highlights the dislocation. It makes you miss everyone.

You downplay how numb you’re feeling about things. As you talk about the weather, beaches, and eating exotic food, you inadvertently become the Instagram model with the sunglasses. How did it end up like this?

Painful growth

Dislocated, you find yourself becoming insular and paying closer attention to your mood and your mindset. What else is there to do? You’ve seen all the tourist sites and tried all the restaurants in this place. Your new friends have moved onto other adventures. You’ve also reached the point where you kind of miss cold weather and you definitely miss toast.

You never made time to analyse your day-to-day habits in your ultra-busy “former” life, let alone to understand what drives them. Maybe the exercise will prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll be a welcome distraction.

Over the days that follow, you observe and analyse yourself like a test subject. You note down what you discover, and you design and implement solutions quickly. The results are promising, so you continue.

Soon, you’ve optimised your day—your whole existence, really—to run exactly as you want it to. You’ve integrated your work with the rest of your life, you’re clear on your priorities, and you feel in control of your time. You might be more balanced, focused and happier than you’ve ever been.

All this required far fewer steps than the listicles had you believe.

During the COVID-19 crisis, people are experiencing the same social isolation that nomads feel living in a new place. Work and relationships suddenly default to digital. You’re obliged to keep morale up by highlighting the bright side of a shitty situation. With everything uncertain and unfamiliar, you have to adapt and learn to make sense of the noise for yourself.

It might feel overwhelming, but isolation isn’t all bad. It forces us to think about ourselves and our desires. To design and plan our goals within restrictions. To better recognise the differences between the internal and external influences on our behaviour and actions. To know when to hit the “reset” button on how we’re spending our time.

Dislocation is familiar to nomads. For those moving around most often, this isolation and self-reflection process can happen as often as every few weeks. It’s disorienting, and often painful. But we emerge at the other end of it better and stronger—and keen to do it all again.

Experiences, especially difficult ones, allow us to grow. Ultimately, this builds our resilience. Use your time indoors to review, reflect and rethink. Take it from a nomad: what you learn will be useful, wherever you may find yourself in the future.