People often ask us how they can live life as a digital nomad. So here’s something I’ve been thinking of for a while…
Sailing offshore, it’s considered impolite to talk.
If you have something to say it had best be good. Nothing is more annoying than being stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a chatterbox.
So when my skipper John Kirkman, a man of few words, began speaking, I listened intently. John is a boat builder and architect running a successful consultancy specialising in environmentally friendly designs.
Holding the tiller with one hand, my attention with the other, he balanced the boat on the starboard wind and told me about a Roman architect named Vitruvius, who coined the three classic principles of his craft.
Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas.
Translated, that means “Strength, Utility and Beauty.” According to Vitruvius, for a building to be truly designed well, it must be sturdy, functional and bring a sense of delight.
All the classic structures of the world conform to this set of principles, from the Sydney Opera House to the Pyramids of Giza. When you neglect one or more of the principles, you get things like council houses in England – strong, able to house people, but ugly.
To get to the point of discussing Roman architectural philosophy, John and I had been discussing the future of work.
For the past three years Carmen and I have travelled the world as digital nomads, people who run a location independent business that can be packed up and taken anywhere. Our company, Red Platypus, provides copywriting services, so all we need is a laptop and an internet connection to sail her by.
In contrast, John left his native Zimbabwe to build boats and run charter yachts in Mozambique, sailing across the world with his family before settling down in Australia to run his architectural practise.
He wanted to know how a person could stay on the road – or behind the tiller – forever, and always be able to pack and up go where they wanted to, working and living as they pleased. How can someone become a digital nomad?
But instead of me answering his question, I told him he’d already answered it.
Strength, Utility and Beauty
When people ask how they too can become digital nomads, there is often an expectation of cutting edge concepts. And while that certainly is true with some aspects of the new digital economy, the foundations of the digital nomad lifestyle are rooted in classic principles that have not changed and will never change.
To have a successful life as a digital nomad, it’s important to recognise the fundamentals, rather than get too carried away with the bells and whistles of modernity. Because if we ignore them, well, we get ugly buildings that don’t work and make people upset.
Utilitas – the first pillar of life as a digital nomad
Back in the heady days of the late 90’s dotcom bubble, some pretty crazy companies got back massive dollar backings from investors, and failed spectacularly.
One of the standouts was Pets.com, which sold pet accessories and supplies over the web. In just 268 days, the company went from an IPO on the Nasdaq index to liquidation, scrubbing around US$300M of investors cash with it.
So what happened? Essentially, it wasn’t a firm company – it didn’t have Utilitas.
Pets.com was a great idea, but the sales to support it just weren’t there. Fewer people back then bought things over the internet, and even fewer needed pet supplies. The market wised up to this and the company went bust.
When you’re aiming to build up a location independent business, the first pillar of its success will be the actual demand for the product or service you’re offering and your ability to scale it. If no one wants what you’re offering, you won’t be able to work and travel sustainably.
The digital economy encourages innovation, entrepreneurship and failing quickly, but wise digital nomads have at least one business that’s the banker. A web developer may be working on something ground-breaking in exchange for shares, while also doing paid work optimising websites and writing code.
After all, life as a digital nomad is a lifestyle fundamentally no different from the 9 to 5 cubicle dweller. We all have bills to pay, be they the monthly electricity or the hostel rent.
To do that, you need a solid job no matter if it’s based on the high street or of no fixed address.
Firmitas – the second pillar of life as a digital nomad
One of the hardest things about life as a digital nomad is the disconnect that often occurs when explaining what it is exactly that you do.
Most are happy to trust your Facebook feed and assume that it’s all cocktails at dusk by the pool with a few hours of work tapping out something that inexplicably pays enough to cover the bar bill and the plane tickets to somewhere next.
The best explanation is that it’s like a regular job, just on your own terms. No commute or office politics. Just the work you love in a place you want to be. Which all sounds great. But the reality of digital nomad work is that you are on call all the time. With great flexibility comes great expectations.
Because digital nomads are unattached to regular working hours, we offer the ability to deliver creative projects on much tighter deadlines, or surprise clients with the focus we can bring. That’s all very good.
But on the flipside, there can often be significant time differences between the clients we work for and the place we’re doing the work in – and with the other people we may be working with digitally to complete the tasks, such as virtual assistants and designers.
This is where Fimitas comes in, the second classic pillar of life as a digital nomad.
You must be firm in your dealings with clients and your creation of personal and professional standards. Outline exactly what you can deliver and when to the client, and outline for yourself the working hours and flexibility you are happy to provide to bring that about. It’s important to protect the freedom and flexibility you have carved out for yourself, but balance it with your ability to deliver.
Firmitas also extends to your ability to do the work no matter where you are and no matter what happens in your life as a digital nomad.
Hostel internet cuts out? Go to a café and use theirs. No power? Jump on your bike and go to the next town. Digital nomads must create business models that deliver the goods. No excuses.
Otherwise your clients really will believe that you are just sitting by a pool sipping dacquaris – and hire someone closer to home who they can feed instant coffee to in the break room.
Venustas – the third (and most important) pillar of life as a digital nomad
This is where the differences between regular office-based 9-5 working styles and life as a digital nomad really becomes apparent.
Most digital nomads we have met became so after working in solid, regular jobs back in the real world. But they were bored. Or unchallenged and unfulfilled. So they quit to do something they loved.
This is the key. Venustas. Beauty.
The work you choose to pursue as a digital nomad must be beautiful. That doesn’t mean you need to paint or play the harp or sing an aria. It means what you do should make you feel fantastic – and make a difference in the lives of your clients and customers.
Simon and Erin from Never Ending Voyage build amazing travel budgeting apps and write helpful books of travel tips – Carmen reviewed their latest book here. Duncan and Nicola from Classroom of Hope dedicate their lives to raising money for the construction of schools in developing nations. Katie McNoulty curates The Travelling Light to bring inspiration, style and freedom to her readers and work with brands to clue them in to better things.
That’s just three examples from a pool of millions of people living the life as a digital nomad, each working their arses off every day on projects and businesses they love – each with Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas.
John’s wise words from the boat have stayed with me.
In the end, whether the ship of our lives sails out and then returns to one harbour or travels to many, all that matters is that your boat is shipshape and that you have your hand on the tiller, controlling the direction of the sails.