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9 Surprises Of The Digital Nomad Experience To Expect

Last updated Jul 30, 2021


Despite all of the exhaustive research, preparing, and planning you’ve done to finally launch into your digital nomad experience, as soon as you embark, some huge surprises will still crash into you like waves. 

If you’re not prepared for them, they could roll you right over and cause you to question or even quit your journey. Let’s dive into what some of the surprises are so that you can brace for impact.

9 Surprises Of The Digital Nomad Experience

Not all surprises of the digital nomad experience are negative, such as this first surprise…

1. You’ll (Be Forced To) Grow Constantly

The old adage “if you’re not livin’, you’re dyin’” must’ve been written about the digital nomad experience.

Even when everything is going right, or if everything is going wrong, or you find yourself bored (#7), you’re forced to evaluate and grow, because nothing is a given.

It’s not necessarily a given how you’ll make your next dollar, or where you’ll go next, or if it’s time to go home. Being forced into an active role of decision making and execution constantly is at the heart of the digital nomad experience, and it’s a steroids-pressure cooker of growth.

Maybe this is why so many people hear that they’ve changed when they go back home. How could you not change?

Girl sitting on bridge in old town

I’m grateful for every difficulty of this lifestyle. I would’ve never tried so many things or seen so many new places if it hadn’t been for the many metamorphosizes behind me. Monschau, Germany 2019

2. You’ll Pick Up Odd Skills

An actually lovely surprise of the digital nomad experience is that you learn how to make due in many unique situations.

  • You need to sew up a sneaker? Sure.
  • The bus randomly got into town at 3 a.m. and now all of the hotels are closed and you have to cowboy camp with a tarp? That’s life.
  • The bridge is down and you have to wade across a river holding your pack above your head? Gotta do whatcha gotta do!

It’s a beautiful thing, to learn to solve and thrive in so many unexpected situations. It brings to mind a quote from Frida Kahlo:

“I think that little by little I’ll be able to solve my problems and survive.”

This is particularly true for anyone who does exchanges, such as Workaway, Worldpackers, WWOOFing, Trusted Housesitters, etc. These are scenarios where you volunteer your time in exchange for room and board, and sometimes food.

If I asked you now if you knew how to tell when an olive is ready for picking, you may very well say no, but after a WWOOFing stay on a farm in Greece, you’ll be able to give me an earful about it. Or maybe the same will go for alpaca care, which you might have to learn about for a house-sitting gig.

My first work exchange was helping out at a hostel in Cozumel, Mexico. I learned this surprise of the digital nomad experience to be true right away as I found working as a freelance writer by morning and fixing toilets and painting furniture by afternoon. 

Need help painting furniture in 100% humidity? I’m your gal.

View out of an airplane

At the beginning of my digital nomad experience, I structured my entire trip around different WorkAway gigs. I saved hundreds or thousands of dollars and went places that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone. The shot here was taken on my flight into my WorkAway placement in Cozumel. 2017

3. You’ll Wish You’d Have Packed Differently

No matter how much research you do, within the first week, you will be sorely missing an extender or cord or wished you’d brought a different bag altogether.

This is not that different from traveling, but, like everything with the digital nomad experience, it’s just more intense.

Consider this to be your permission slip to forgive yourself and buy whatever you forgot at home along the way. Forgetting at least one important item is a rite of passage. If you lean in the other direction and overpack, that solution is even easier.

Overpacking is easily resolved: simply give away or trade your odds and ends from your hostel bunk, or make a kid’s day by giving them some free stuff.

It’s three years later and I’m still kicking myself for packing a carry-on only but bringing snorkel gear, down to the flippers, with me through Central America. Those are rentable for pocket change, but I couldn’t imagine paying for something that I had back home. The worst part was, I only used them once. I felt 20 pounds lighter when I finally shed them in San Salvador.

Do your best to take in the advice of digital nomad packing lists, but don’t expect it to be perfect or you’ll be disappointed.

Kayla Ihrig of Writing From Nowhere

Pictured in the Cancun airport with only two bags (A+), with one containing an entire set of snorkel gear that was only used once (C-). 2017

4. You’ll Become Very In Tune To Your Body

While the pictures you see of digital nomads always show them sitting on their laptops, it’s actually a very active lifestyle. Every day, you become a little bit stronger, more energetic, more toned – it’s like watching your body slowly come into focus.

But, when you’re not feeling great, it’s apparent. Digestive discomfort or headaches, even minor health ailments, really impact your digital nomad experience. You’re forced to listen to your body on a much deeper level than in normal life because failing to take care of yourself is a fatal mistake of the full-time travel lifestyle

This may sound negative, but what a gift! This demand of the digital nomad experience will retroactively offer you balance, self-care and keep you healthier.

Sunset view over Groningen

As a digital nomad, you need to feel good enough to chase every sunrise, waterfall, and adventure that comes your way. Groningen, Netherlands 2019

5. How Organized You Are Affects Your Quality Of Life

Amongst all of the sexy, exciting factors that make up your digital nomad experience proudly stands nerdy, slightly annoying organization.

Exciting or not, the organization of your physical and digital belongings will have a massive impact on your digital nomad experience. 

  • Leave your laptop charger behind at your hostel and then miss a work deadline, and you’ve lost a client. Even worse: for the life of you, you may not be able to find that exact computer charger anywhere and you’ll end up hauling around a dead laptop to remind you of your mistake (this happened to me in Colombia).
  • Or, if you’re sloppy with file organization, you may end up losing drafts of a project and find yourself inside redoing your work instead of hiking some ruins with friends from your hostel.

The demand of organization in your digital nomad experience all boils down to the fact that your stability and ability to make money hinge on being able to show up for work every day and perform your duties.

Learning to be as organized as possible is so vital to your stability that I recommend you work on it before embarking on your digital nomad experience.

Crowded street in Bogota

Colombia had a lot to offer, but it *didn’t* have a convenient place to replace the computer charger that I lost. It took several days of searching to find one, and I damaged a relationship with a client by missing a deadline in the process. Bogota 2017

6. You May Start To Resent Your Job

This surprise can really catch you off guard because, in the beginning, your remote job was your beacon of opportunity. It was the vehicle that enabled you to embark on your digital nomad experience, and you should cherish it as such! Until, one day, you can’t.

The feeling of freedom that you have at the beginning of your digital nomad experience will fade, and it’s expedited by working a 9-5 still.

When I embarked on my digital nomad journey, I was working Monday through Friday as a writer for an online magazine. At first, it was pure bliss! But then the days where I didn’t even leave the hostel until after dark started to accumulate. Every day I was invited out on snorkeling trips, hikes, to rent scooters. Five out of seven days of the week, I said no.

Because I still had a desk job, I was saying no to every amazing offer to do a job that I disliked and resented more every day.

It may sound spoiled to resent a job that pays you money and allows you to work from anywhere, but in reality: a job that suits your lifestyle perfectly is out there. It’s worth fighting for.

In the beginning, you should take any remote job that you can get, but make it a priority to think about what you really demand from a job. I think more often than not, this leads digital nomads into starting their own online business.

There’s never been a better time to do so, and you’re already embarking on the digital nomad lifestyle! What’s one more leap-of-faith-that-it-will-all-work-out adventure? It may just be your answer to everything.

Regardless of your employment type, a day will come where all of the warm and fuzzy feelings it once gave you are gone. Surprisingly, that’s a feeling that’s coming for the entire digital nomad experience, which leads right into surprise #7.

Laptop and breakfast bowl

The view that I chose over 10 better offers so that I could keep my Monday to Friday job. Exotic, isn’t it? Finding work-life balance as a digital nomad takes practice. Cozumel, Mexico 2017

7. There Will Be A Point Where Travel Stops Exciting You

Things like finding the off-the-path waterfall, clearing customs, learning the beginnings of a new language will start off feeling exhilarating.

It’s a sad day when the thrill that travels used to give you is replaced with the same feeling that drove you out of normal life. Whether it’s boredom, indifference, or a vague sense of feeling lost, it comes for travel the same way it comes for any routine.

Girl on hiking trail

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia in 2019

The question of “where do I want to go next?” will feel like a sigh instead of the “eeeek” that it used to be.

If you’re not prepared to experience and react to this, you might spiral right into an identity crisis…

8. You Might Struggle With Identity

If a digital nomad stops traveling, are they still a digital nomad? If a digital nomad stops loving travel, are they still a digital nomad? If a digital nomad stays with their parents for a year during a pandemic are they still a digital nomad? We’re spiraling deeper and deeper here.

Girl in front of city horbor in the Netherlands

Or, in my case, am I still a digital nomad if I moved abroad 3 years ago and have been so broke that I’ve hardly traveled since? Pictured in my current home in the Netherlands.

There are other terms to try on here, such as “location independent,” “work from home,” etc. but you can’t just put on a new identity like it’s a hoodie on your bedroom floor. It’s going to take time to accept situational limitations and decide what it means for you.

Everyone needs to find that answer for themselves, but it will smack you like a ton of bricks if you’re not expecting this surprise of the digital nomad experience.

It’s both a difficult and glorious thing that we get to choose what the digital nomad experience means for each and every one of us.

9. Some People Will Never Accept The Digital Nomad Experience As Valid

No matter how much money you make or how many hours you log a week, some people will simply never see the travel lifestyle as being real work.

Being abroad will always translate to “on vacation” in some people’s eyes, and making more money will exacerbate this further.

In defense of my decision to be completely self-employed as a Pinterest manager/coach so that I could travel more, I told a very skeptical friend how much money I made doing this. I expected this information to validate that I could be a real professional and that the structure of a salary and a 4-walled office was just one path in life. Instead, they responded:

“I guess on the internet, you can sell BS to anyone.”

The takeaway? Don’t try to justify the way you want to live your life to anyone except yourself. Protect your aspirations from people who won’t accept or understand them.

Or, as illustrator Mari Andrews puts it:

“The people worth impressing [are] your 5-year-old self and your 85-year-old self.”

Let your list end there.

This is particularly important for people who are self-employed: There will always be questions around digital entrepreneurship, and it’s not your job to make anyone understand.

Panorama view over Lake Atitlan

Will your 85-year-old-self be more impressed with your resume, or with this view? Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2017Will your 85-year-old-self be more impressed with your resume, or with this view? Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2017

The Digital Nomad Experience Is Still 100% Worth It

The digital nomad experience will expose parts of you that you never knew were there. Traveling, in general, is such a spotlight on ourselves, but the digital nomad experience takes it a step further by really getting to the heart of how we work and spend our time.

It’s a journey that will have natural ups and downs, just like any other in life. The highs are high, but the lows are equally intense. How you brace and react to them will determine how long your digital nomad journey is, and where you’ll go next.

If there’s any doubt in your mind about whether or not the digital nomad lifestyle is worth it for you, I think you can dispel that by the simple fact that you’ve read this whole post and haven’t been scared away! This lifestyle comes with disadvantages, as does any other, but if the idea is planted in your heart then you owe it to yourself to try.

Digital Nomad Experiences

Kayla Ihrig

Kayla Ihrig

Guest Contributor

Kayla is a remote work and digital nomad blogger at Writing From Nowhere. She encourages readers to leave convention behind and find their bliss working online and seeing the world. On Writing From Nowhere, readers can find help with leaving their 9-5, thriving at remote work, running an online business, and more.

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