Being A Digital Nomad vs. Being Location Independent

This post is about more than terminology I swear.

Hang around travel blogs for a while and you will start to see certain words bandied around quite a bit. “Digital Nomad” and “Location Independent” are two phrases you will see, often interchangeably. But they are actually two different things.

I was reminded of this when I read this great little article on Digital Nomad Soul on Why the Digital Nomad Lifestyle is not Sustainable. I agreed with a ton of points the article brought up, especially when he talks about how while the Digital Nomad  lifestyle might not be sustainable, the Location Independent Lifestyle is.

This is something I know, very, very, very well. I was a Digital Nomad for four years, and I’ve been Location Independent with a home base, for three now.

What’s the difference and why does one work better long term?

Defining Digital Nomad

Digital Nomads are our generation’s version of a traveling salesman or maybe a wandering bard. These people make a living with their laptops, and have made the decision not to have a home base. Like turtles, they carry their homes on their back, going where wind, or opportunity, take them.

Lots of bloggers and world travelers aspire to be digital nomads because well, it’s kind of awesome. See the world, make money while you do it, work from a laptop on the beach (don’t do that last one- it’s a great way to get sand in your keyboard).

The biggest advantage of being a nomad: total freedom. You aren’t tied to any one place by leases or responsibilities. For this reason it’s especially appealing to young, single people, but you will find all sorts of people out there doing this, including families.

What It’s Like to Be a Digital Nomad

I was a Digital Nomad for years. After quitting my desk job I managed to eek out a very modest living running what was then Twenty-Something Travel. I worked from I worked from makeshift desks while backpacking in South East Asia, crashing in a dorm room in China, from a high rise in Buenos Aires and even from a camper van in Australia.  The longest I stayed in any one place was 6 months, and it was often much less. For years the only fixed address I had was my Mom’s house.

Being a digital nomad is working in new coffee shops, connecting with other nomads around the world, and making travel plans on a whim. It’s valuing wifi more than air. It’s working odd hours and taking conference calls in hostels. It’s living out of a suitcase and wearing the same clothes until they disintegrate. It’s calling any stay longer than two weeks a “home base.” It’s celebrating New Year’s in Ecuador or Bangkok or wherever you happen to be, with whoever you happen to be with.

Those years were crazy and fun- I racked up dozens of passport stamps, had lots of adventures and worked against some fabulous backdrops. It was all great fun but it wasn’t quite the dream lifestyle many make it out to be.

I spent a lot of time working- most of my time working. When Mike and I were living in Mexico we struggled to tear ourselves away from our computers long enough to go to the beach a couple times a week.  We couldn’t travel as much or as frequently as we wanted because we needed time to work.

Working on the road is not the same as taking a vacation. There’s a paradox to being a nomad: the more you travel, the less time and money you have to work, but the more you work, the less energy you have to travel. Most of my time working on the road was a struggle to find the balance between these two poles.

Why Digital Nomads Go Home

It’s hard to believe you could get tired of the globetrotting lifestyle but nearly everyone does eventually. The article I mentioned above sums up the issues well, but in short: constantly moving can be exhausting, it does a number on you psychologically and it’s hard to meet a significant other or start a family (although certainly not impossible).

For Mike and I, our abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle was rooted in shifting priorities. I found myself longing for the stability of a home base. I would day dream about owning my own couch, cooking in a kitchen that was decently stocked, going out to happy hour with friends I’d known longer than a week or two.  The travel life was starting to feel one dimensional. We weren’t having that much fun anymore.

It’s difficult to form meaningful relationships when you are constantly moving around. I was lucky enough to have met someone as crazy as I am, before I started traveling, but most nomads struggle with dating and friendships.

The last factor: we knew we wanted to start a family, and we didn’t want to be living out of a suitcase while we did it. So we pulled the plug on our digital nomad years, and I don’t think either of us have regretted it at all.

Defining Location Independence

We didn’t just go back to the 9-5 grind though. What we transitioned to was something far better (in my opinion anyways).

Being location independent simply means that you are not bound by your job to living in a certain place. All digital nomads are location independent but not all location independent people are digital nomads. You can be location independent but choose to have a home base. This is far more sustainable long term.

I’m a freelance writer, which means I can work just about anywhere. Mike works for Automattic, a company that is fully remote- meaning he can do his job from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. We chose to live in Seattle simply because we wanted to, but we are not tied here by our employers.

Life as a Location Independent Worker

Being Location Independent but having a home base has really been the best of both worlds. We have the steady comforts of home, but a flexibility that opens up a wealth of options. We can vacation in Japan for 3 weeks and work from Tokyo for one of them. We can go visit our family on the East Coast for weeks on end. Most significantly, we can pick up and move this whole show over to Italy with no disruption to our work lives.

Being Location Independent is having a place to hang your travel souvenirs. It’s having a dog, an external monitor, a favorite coffee shop down the street. It’s perfecting my meatball recipe and going to happy hour with my college roommate. It’s observing weekends. It’s really knowing a city the way only a local can. It’s traveling purposely, not aimlessly and really appreciating where and when we do go places.

It’s not perfect either: it’s having to find a dogsitter when we go out of town, making sure we have the money in our bank account to pay the lease each month, it’s moving abroad, but still working on Eastern time. It’s saying no to things. It’s responsibility mixed with freedom.

Why Location Indepenence is Sustainable

Over the years I have watched more and more of my digital nomad friends make this switch. Kate got an apartment in Harlem. Dave and Lauren moved to Lisbon. Amber and and Eric chose Girona. Even strong holdouts like Sherry finally got a lease in Denver after ten (!) years living on the road. I could go on, I know literally dozens of people who have made this transition.

Simply: being LI is easier, and in the long term it just feels better. Everyone likes to feel like they’re building something, working towards something. You can build a business on the road, but you can’t build a life.

What’s Right For You?

Now I’m really not knocking the Digital Nomad experience. It was exactly that: an amazing experience that I’m so glad I had, and equally glad I’m not having anymore. Maybe someday I might make the switch again, for at least a little while.

If you can find a way to be location independent- either by working for yourself, or working for a remote company, then you have a wealth of options open to you. If you want to be nomadic, absolutely go for it! Just don’t cling to that idea past its expiration date. Because once the thrill is gone, it’s gone for good.

It’s okay to evolve. Going home can actually be a totally new kind of beginning.


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10 thoughts on “Being A Digital Nomad vs. Being Location Independent”

  1. Holy crap, this hit a nerve with me. I’ve been a DN for about 7 years now, and I’m EXHAUSTED. I thought something was wrong with me! Why would I want to stop traveling so much!? But I do crave a home base now, and for the same reasons you mentioned, except i’m single and as you said, it’s harder to meet a partner on the road.

    Problem I’m having now? Choosing where to settle. Where’s home? I have a few places in mind, each with their own pros and cons, and can’t decide!

    Anybody else have this problem?

  2. Having in control of your own time is what I find best about being a digital nomad. Making your hobby as your source of income is the best fulfillment in working life. Making yourself as a boss is really a good feeling. But the trade-off with this is that you have a firm self-discipline of yourself or else you will not succeed as a digital nomad. This is also the envy of the people from cubicle nation where they have to spend eight or more hours day juggling their best to finish their assigned tasks. A digital nomad is not like this, they were the ones to set the deadline of their tasks, so it is less stress.

  3. I have moved abroad last year with my husband and our 2 cats. I researched the idea of being a DN. It is not for me at the moment. I have a place in Europe with our cats and it would be hard to be away from my cats and husband. He is location independent but needs to be near his filing cabinet. He works in the law field. I like having a home with our cats and my home office.
    I have recently secured a position with a startup and I am now location independent 🙂

    Years ago I traveled through south East Asia for about 9 months. But then I just traveled and didn’t work at all. I dont think I would enjoy it that much if I had to work on the road.

    I love taking weekend trips exploring the new country I have moved to.

  4. Very good article!!! I can relate to it. These points are also true when your work is not digital only: for example, I am a performing artist which is pretty much a location independent career. It is possible to do this while wandering continuously, but it might become tiresome after a while.

    (On a side note: I read a few of your excellent posts, but now started hesitating about coming back for more, because of the ads.

    Why do you have a dozen of ads in one single post?

    In this one, I counted 15, yes fifteen! Plus one more pop-up that was blocked and I don’t know what was that, maybe a signup prompt. Out of these 15 ads, it is 13 of the very same from – as I am referring people to that side, too, surely will not click on it. And the other two were advertising one if the very hotels from the ads…

    It was quite difficult to read your article with all the annoying interruptions after every paragraph or two.

    Is this something intentional, or maybe some error in your site?)

  5. Still taking it all in but I definitely get the difference now and I do see your point about LI being more sustainable! Being a digital nomad can definitely be super fun and exciting for some time! I guess it just depends on how long a time this is for different people

  6. Being a digital nomad sounds exhausting and stressful to me (especially finding wifi in some places!). I’ve (sort of) done location independent – I was fortunate in my last job (in England) that I had 3 work from home days and my manager allowed me to work from both the U.S. a few times (my parent’s house) and Paris once. This gave me some flexibility to explore, travel, and not spend time commuting.

  7. I love this post! I’m currently in the digital nomad stage and think it will make moving home to a more stable life later that much sweeter

  8. There’s such a big difference between the two. I learned very early on in my travel/blogging career that being a digital nomad was not a good fit for me, but that striving to be location independent was. I have a home base (and a fiance and a cat) here in Ohio, but can work my own hours and travel whenever I want. It’s also great to know that if Elliot were to get transferred or if we really wanted to move elsewhere, I wouldn’t have to make any huge changes in order to be able to do that.

  9. YES YES YES!!! I always think being a digital nomad sounds amazing, but your reasons for moving to Seattle – wanting some home comforts and making friends – are exactly why I love being location independent and having a home base in Berlin. The longest I ever traveled was 5 months, and I wasn’t really working during that time. I wouldn’t mind trying a long trip again at some point, like 6 months or something, and working a bit along the way, but I don’t see myself ever going fully digital nomad. I like my bed too much!

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