The Digital Nomad Life and the Ambiguous Gift of Freedom

May 24, 2021

You’ve seen the pictures.

People in the Maldives, typing on their laptop while chilling on the hammock and sipping coconut water. “Office for the day”, says the caption. In the background, the most beautiful white sand beach reminds you of how grey your life seems in comparison.

On Instagram, life seems to be smiling to the Digital Nomads. But is this lifestyle really dazzling as it seems? And more importantly, is the freedom that it provides always a positive experience?

In order to answer this question we must first discuss what drives people to embrace this lifestyle in the first place. And more often than not, that’s a rejection of the conventional way of living.

Like many other Digital Nomads, I started my journey because I wasn’t happy with the status quo. I didn’t care about climbing the corporate ladder or acquiring status, nor did I care about owning things and living a comfortable life.

Instead, I craved novelty and intensity through new experiences, new encounters, and new environments. I craved the life excitement that all those Digital Nomads popping up in my Instagram feed seemed to have.

I wanted their freedom to work and live anywhere around the world. The freedom to seek new experiences and meet new people whenever I wanted to.

However, what I didn’t know at the time is that freedom is a double-edged sword: on one hand it can empower you, on the other one, it can cut you deep.

An ambiguous gift

In his masterful book Escape from Freedom from 1941, the German psychologist Erich Fromm explains how freedom is by nature an ambiguous gift. In fact, freeing yourself from something that is limiting you doesn’t always result in positive change.  

He writes, “In the name of “freedom” life loses all structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole. The individual is left alone with these pieces like a child with a puzzle. He is bewildered and afraid and just goes on gazing at his little meaningless pieces.”

In other words, when you take action to increase your personal freedom severing the bonds that tie you to your current circumstances, you stand alone in facing a threatening world.

To give an historical example, Fromm explains how in medieval times ‘individual freedom’ wasn’t even a thing. Anyone born around those times was chained for his entire life to a specific location, social class, and profession. Each aspect of his or her life was determined by social obligations which left no space for imagination.

Although the individual didn’t have any sort of freedom, being rooted in a distinct and unchangeable social role meant that he or she never had to feel alone, isolated or in doubt. The pieces of the puzzle were put together and given to each person the moment they were born, and that was the end of it.

But then came the Renaissance, and things changed.

In the 15th century, in the Italian town of Firenze the new intellectual movement started to drive a radical social change. The fundamental thesis of the Renaissance promoted the idea of human freedom and progress, and considered man to be limitless in his potential. According to this philosophy, each man was meant to gather more knowledge and develop his capabilities as fully as possible, an ideal best embodied by the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci.  

Although this new freedom empowered the individual to try his luck and become the master of his own fate, it also undermined the entire medieval social system, and with it the mental and emotional stability that it provided. As Fromm writes, “the individual was [now] left alone; everything depended on his own effort, not on the security of his traditional status.” For many, the new freedom created a deep feeling of insecurity, doubt, and anxiety. Now they had to figure out their puzzle on their own.

Similarly, today we experience a continuous tension between the familiar and conventional way of living, and the countless opportunities to develop ourselves constantly luring around us.

On one hand, we find reassurance in the beaten path of having a stable job, getting married, settling in one place, having a family, and maintaining our social status over time. On the other hand, we have access to an unprecedented international mobility and amount of knowledge online.

Social media continually reminds us of all the places we could visit, all the things we could do, all the partners we could have. Technology and remote work, empower us to seize these opportunities.

Socially speaking, it’s the dream of the Renaissance Man on steroids.

Most people renounce this level of freedom, favoring conformity and stability. Some others jump straight into it, exploring exciting new roads. A few years ago, I decided to make that jump: I booked a one-way ticket to Bali and I embraced the Digital Nomad life.  

The middle path

The moment I arrived in Bali I entered a vortex of excitement. On my first day, I was invited to attend a Jujitsu class in the middle of the jungle. On my second day, a girl I met the night before came to pick me up with her scooter to go have breakfast together. On my third day, on my way to the coworking space, I found myself surrounded by monkeys jumping all over me.

My mind was blown away. For several months I enjoyed the new freedom: I worked from lush coworking spaces, explored exotic locations, and climbed active volcanoes. Later on I moved to Lisbon, where I enjoyed the quiet parks, the vibrant community, and weekly adventures.

Next, I thought about going to Colombia. I started researching the best neighborhood to live in, I joined the Digital Nomad Medellín Facebook group, and I created a chat with other friends who wanted to go. Everything was going well, until I realized that I was burning out.

The idea of going to another place, meeting more people, and starting a new life from scratch again was overwhelming. The freedom I craved so much was now becoming a burden. What was possible and exciting for my mind felt impractical and exhausting for my body.

Ultimately, Fromm was right: “In the name of “freedom” life loses all structure”.

I felt lonely, anxious and in doubt. I craved being in a familiar environment, having my own shelter and even having a routinary life - at least for a while - to put the pieces of the puzzle back together.

There is no conventional way of living the Digital Nomad life, no guidelines to follow: all you’ve got is your own sensemaking and judgement. And sometimes, you just feel lost.

I learned that although too much stability is deadly, some stability is needed. As humans we need both certainty and uncertainty, the familiar and the unknown, and if we are too inclined on either one side of the spectrum, we inevitably suffer.

But despite the struggle, I never thought about going back to a sedentary life. So, I found some ways to introduce stability in my life.

Instead of going out to meet new people, I started investing more energy in the few good relationships that were nurturing me the most. Instead of moving to new places, I started exploring in depth the ones I already loved. Instead of prioritizing adventures and fun, I started prioritizing daily routines and healthy habits.

I gave up some freedom in order to regain some emotional and mental stability, and that made all the difference.

Eventually, the puzzle made sense again.  

Final thoughts

You see the pictures, but they don’t tell the full story.

A shiny Instagram feed is no substitute for long-term wellbeing. It’s easy to dream about the Digital Nomad life to escape a dull routine, but it’s just as easy to get lost once you’re in it.

The double-edged sword of freedom is hard to master.

However, we shouldn’t renounce it so quickly. The modern nomadic lifestyle is a great opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. A way to measure ourselves through new experiences, new encounters, new environments.

Ultimately, it’s a way to become more integrated human beings and enjoy a better quality of life. And that, to me, is priceless.

📝 Thanks to Martin for the great feedback on my first draft. 

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