There’s a classic trajectory for anyone who tries to mix a life of working plus travelling. It goes a little like this:
1. This is amazing! I can work while I’m travelling. I’m living the dream! My future is made of laptops and cocktails by the pool.
2. Dammit. To make this happen, I need to work A LOT.
3. Double dammit if your chosen field of work is travel: travelling has now become work.
4. Is there a way to make this good?!
There’s long been a saturation of articles about dropping the day job to “live the dream” and now there’s an almost equal saturation of articles saying “don’t do it!”. It’s complicated, but if you ask me now “Are you happy you left your day job four years ago to pursue a life of travel?”, I’d definitely say yes. But my journey isn’t one of those neatly inspiring digital nomad success stories. I didn’t quit my job, sell everything and start a lucrative blog. I also didn’t start a niche business and become a self-made online entrepreneur. My path is a privileged one. It’s also messy, and my achievements aren’t huge, but recently, I found the success I needed most: I’ve found a lifestyle that works for me now.
In search of a cliché
When I first quit my job, working as a writer at an international development charity in London, I wasn’t sure what I’d do next. All the steps in my life thus far had been geared towards that job. School to university to internships to a postgrad course to a graduate scheme to the job I’d wanted all along. But wanderlust has always been in me and it never quietened down. I liked my job, but I didn’t love it, and I felt like there was “something else” out there for me. A year after my Mum died, I decided to hand in my notice and book a one-way ticket to Rio. I’d inherited my parent’s house and bought a new one in London, so a combination of rental income plus savings meant I could afford to take this step (as I said, this isn’t a story of hardship).
In part, the motivation for my journey was to heal. I lost my parents to long and complicated illnesses when I was 17 and 26. I don’t have brothers and sisters and, while I had Steve, I was still looking to re-find my feet in my new nuclear family of one. I was also in pursuit of that classic travel cliché. I wanted to “find myself”, to find out what was important to me and unlock the elusive door to what it was I really wanted. I thought that being away from all I knew – the cultural conditions and expectations that had shaped me – might bring a magic answer.
And along the way, I found many magic answers. I started a company, I trained as a yoga teacher, I did a course in nutrition, I learnt to program, I started research for several books, I studied mindfulness, I did a foundation course in psychotherapy, I tried ayahuasca and ibogaine, I freelanced, I nearly started a yoga retreat, I did the Artist’s Way, I threw myself full-throttle into creating a successful blog, I taught writing classes, and I decided not to knock anything until I’d tried it during a maddening experiment in Bali. But four years and 29 countries later, ask me “what would you like to do with your life?” and I still don’t have a definitive answer. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy any of the things I tried. All of them were part of the puzzle and I still do some of them now, but I never had that definitive “ah ha” moment that made me sure “this is the one”.
For many years, my lack of direction got me down. I felt as though I was surrounded by people who truly knew what they wanted. There were the people who had put aside everything to follow their dream of being a writer, an artist, a chef, or there were those who knew their vocation was to be a nurse or a doctor or teacher. These people had found their element and I longed to find mine. I was in a privileged position that meant I could afford some time to explore and I was desperate to make the most of it. But, after one too many false starts, I decided to stop. I was sick of looking for the answer, and instead I decided to concentrate on what I wanted now.
Throughout all of those years, I blogged. I had moments where I decided that this would be my full-time career, but the reality never panned out. Making money through blogging is complicated and I haven’t yet found a way that would work for me, certainly not for a full-time living. Most of the methods either involve losing your blog’s integrity and becoming a paid marketeer, or they rely on huge audience numbers, which I have never had. I love to write, but I don’t love social media and I’ve never quite found my groove when it comes to the whole marketing side of blogging. As a personal blogger, my brand is basically me, and I find it hard to market myself. I’ve also seen first-hand the amount of work, time and effort that professional bloggers have to put into their online presence. I did it to that level for about a year or two, but found the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was living in exotic places, but I spent all my time staring at a computer. It wasn’t the dream I’d envisaged. Nowadays, while I do sometimes get paid work through Bridges and Balloons, I blog primarily for the love of it, and gain income through other means. It’s bought joy back to writing and travel.
Four years of being nomadic taught me something else important: I don’t want to travel full-time. Around the two-year mark, Steve and I decided we needed a base. We craved community and a home to return to. It’s something a lot of nomads decide, but then the question becomes “where?”. We tried Mexico, Bali and Berlin before deciding that, after everything, it had to be England. We missed our friends and family and wanted to be closer to them. Returning for short visits wasn’t enough. I also didn’t love being an expat. There’s something wonderfully liberating about being in a country you don’t understand – where the news stories mean very little to you and everything feels new – but after a while, I realised that although being connected to a community and all its flaws can be hard, I also love to be involved. This is, of course, possible in other cultures especially when you learn the language, but I feel as though I can be of most use here in the culture I know.
None of this is to say I decided I wanted to stop travelling. The wanderlust lived on, and it shows no sign of abating. England is my home base, but travel is still a big part of my life. And over the past year, I’ve started to find a way to make that work.
Money, money, money
Money is of course an issue. In the early years when living in South America, Mexico and Bali, our living costs were very little. I needed to earn around £600 a month to cover costs and I knew I had the rental income from my house to fall back on. But when we returned to London, that income stopped and our living costs got much higher. I started to freelance more, occasionally taking short-term contracts and returning to work in charity communications. I found I enjoyed the stability. After years of working for myself, it was a luxury to have a reliable income and defined hours. I could stop working when the clock hit five, whereas when trying to be a full-time blogger, I always had to be “on”.
I didn’t love it so much that I decided to go back full time, but I did realise that short or part-time contracts suited me. I liked working in a team, I enjoyed the variety, and it meant I could continue to blog without trying to find a way to make it my full-time living.
Finding the balance
I’ve recently been lucky that I landed a recurring contract where I work for 10 days every six weeks, editing a magazine. It’s one reliable pot of income, plus it’s infrequent enough that I can still take long trips if I want to. I can also take other freelance work in between. So that’s what I’m doing now. I’m working on the magazine and I have another contract writing speeches and doing some copywriting for an international children’s charity. Steve and I are working on an exciting freelance project, making films for Expedia, and we have a few other jobs in the pipeline. And I continue to do interviews and features for magazines. I’m also working as an editor for another travel site, which brings some of the perks of blogging, such as travel discounts or “free” trips (of course, nothing is ever actually free as you always have to do something in return) without having to involve this site. And, of course, I’m continuing to blog.
All of this may not be my vocation, but I’m enjoying it, and the stability is giving me some space for creativity. It’s a huge relief to not continually be asking myself “what should I do with my life?”. The question does still linger, but I’ve stopped fretting about finding the perfect answer and am taking the time to appreciate what I’m doing now.
What about travel?
So how does travel fit into this? For me there are three types of travel: travel for the sake of it; travel for work (perhaps on a press trip where you’re there specifically to write about or film something); and digital nomad travel where you’re working while travelling. When living a full-time digital nomad life, combining work and travel, Steve and I rarely got the balance right. We worked too much and started to lose the magic of wanderlust. We found it hard to draw a line between work and life. In contrast, over the past year, we’ve taken time off to purely travel, away from our laptops and work. We haven’t worried about the internet connection and have enjoyed switching off. On our recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, we worked for part of the time, but also took a whole month off to road trip around the country. It was a glorious return to what travelling used to be for us. We also discovered Home Exchange (more on that next time), which made the whole thing more affordable. Taking a whole month off was a huge luxury and not one we can afford to do very often, but by juggling our freelance work and finding creative ways to save money, we can create smaller pockets of pure travel, alongside travel for work, and digital nomadism. We can do it all in moderation.
My ideal formula now
This is what works for me now. England is my home base and I intend to spend the majority of the next year here, getting involved in the local community, and creating a place to call home. I have some regular work that requires me to be here, but the rest is flexible and can be done remotely, so I’m free to travel if the opportunity comes. Some of that might be pure pleasure, some mixed with work, and I’ll likely blog about it all. Already, we have trips to Sweden, Norway, Northern Ireland and Barcelona on the agenda. We have a home but we won’t always be still.
I know that in a year’s time, the life that works for me now may look different. I know, and have watched, how things change, but I’ve also learned the joy of appreciating what I have now. And every day I feel lucky for it. One day, I may have a dream that grips me, but right now I’m okay not knowing the answer, because I’m happy with what is now.
P.S. A big reason for why I feel so lucky is because of that lovely face on the left there. A big thanks to Steve for supporting all my searching over the past few years. He is the best.