How Bali’s digital nomads betrayed our expectations and taught us 3 lessons about life as a freelancer

When we left our full-time jobs to pursue the dream of writing a non-fiction book about our rapidly changing world of work, it seemed like a natural goal to spend at least some days in one of the tropical paradise countries that have become hotspots for a global crowd of location-independent professionals.

Nearly five million American workers currently describe themselves as “digital nomads”, according to a recent survey by MBO Partners. They’re joined by millions of others from Europe, Asia and elsewhere whose Instagram posts make ordinary office people yearning for a sea change. Their photos typically show young creatives sitting barefoot under beach umbrellas, fresh coconut juice next to their laptop.

We went to Bali because we wanted a piece of that “coconut lifestyle”.

We expected to meet people who have mastered the art of building a perfect work-life balance. People who turn their jobs into a life adventure, their daily routine a pleasant swinging between skype chats, surf and yoga, building the next unicorn start-up with a smoothie in their hands, yet always ready to pack their bags and chase the next experience. A life fuelled by big dreams, memorable moments, and manageable risk. Who wouldn’t want to use digital technology to earn hard Western dollars in a country where the cost of living is several times below that of London, San Francisco, Frankfurt or Milan?

We were naïve.

It turns out that life in one of the co-working spaces of Indonesia’s most popular tourist island is not what Instagram’s feed of wanderlust-hashtagged images made us believe. Neither are digital nomads the invincible warriors who manage to turn dreams into reality during a four-hour work week made popular by author Tim Ferris.

We found that nomadic digital professionals share similar stress levels and similar fears to ordinary office workers. Many also face surprisingly large budget problems. The nomadic working life, as exotic as it sounds, has betrayed our expectations. But it has also taught us some invaluable lessons for our day-to-day freelance life back home.

Here are the three things that surprised us most about digital nomads: 

1. They work non-stop. A Wi-Fi code in a tropical island paradise isn’t a voucher for slacking off. If you are serious about business, you have to work at least as hard as in a regular office. More likely you will even have to work harder because you will start from scratch and you will be scrambling to stay focused and productive in an environment where every palm frond, every mosquito, and every sunset can be a distraction. You need nerves of steel to silence the constant whisper in your ear of being on holidays. You could easily end up working 12- to 18-hour days to juggle calls and clients across different time zones. Some of the people we met were basically online 24/7. They are a remote plug in the on-demand economy, and switching off could unplug them from critical business relationships.

The author working in Bali

2. They are fugitives, not dreamers. On our second day, the manager of a nomad workspace told us: “This place is full of broken toys.” It was a punch to the gut, and we started seeing the raw truth behind a well-maintained façade of filtered pictures. Many of those who leave their old lives to start something new in a faraway land are directionless. There’s Laura, who felt that the law firm she had just resigned from was “consuming her soul” or Jack, who stopped managing the social media strategy of the Republican Party after losing faith in his leaders.

These people seemed to know clearly what they didn’t want: to burn out in a corner cubicle in a traditional career confined by dress codes, power games and corporate rules. They seemed less clear about what they want. Many professionals jump on the nomad trail in the hope they can work less and have more creative freedom. Many are running away from something, hoping to find themselves on the road.

3. They are afraid of being alone. “The main force behind digital nomads is loneliness. One you understand that, you’ve understood the business.” This is what we heard from a local entrepreneur who has himself worked remotely for nearly three decades. Another influential figure in Bali’s nomad scene says social media is making things worse: “If someone fancies a vegetarian dinner in Ubud, they feel they need to leave a post first: anyone coming along? They don’t just go and talk to people, they need to swipe left and right first before they venture out.”

It’s a paradox in the nomad world: these people seek autonomy, but secretly long for someone to hold their hand. Firms like RemoteYear have understood this and developed a cure for the loneliness that can infect a digital nomad. They offer 4- to 12-monthlong work and travel experiences for professionals who stick together in a group while journeying across countries from Peru to Malaysia.

Coworking spaces are lifelines for digital nomads because they create a much-needed sense of community. They are like day care centres for grown-ups where members can work in peace or join football tournaments, photography clubs, mastermind sessions and speed-networking lunches several times a day. For those who sign up loneliness stops being an option. In fact, trying to isolate yourself is frowned upon. Michael Craig, founder of Dojo in Bali, goes as far as to outright reject larger corporate groups who want to use his light and airy meeting rooms with adjacent swimming pool for corporate offsites: “I tell them to fuck off. We are a community, not a facility”.

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And here are three lessons we’ll bring home to improve our freelance life: 

1. Become your product. Any freelancer pitching remotely to clients has to be a skilled professional, a storyteller and a salesperson. We found many digital nomads who were all that – and more. Cut off from their old corporate and national identity, many had perfected the art of selling themselves to unlock new opportunities. They are, as one veteran in Bali’s nomad scene told us, “freelancers on steroids”. They look at life as a constant stream of potential business “leads” and they act accordingly, repeat their story to anyone who is ready to listen, post photos of their lunch on Instagram and use training sessions at coworking spaces as a testbed for their ideas and sales pitches. Every coffee they order, every random conversation they have could generate new opportunities.

The digital nomad lifestyle is an experiment for many, and its success relies on an individual person’s ability to impress others, attract followers and win strangers over with a vision. Robert, an IT professional who left San Francisco for Bali just over a year ago, learned that the biggest obstacle to making money with his software skills was the fact that some clients simply weren’t able to understand what exactly he was doing. Drinking a turmeric-spiced coffee, he told us: “The most important thing I learned is to communicate very clearly every step I do.”

2. Become a giver. We were genuinely impressed by how many times we received help without asking for it. Jay introduced us to his friend in the publishing business after a swim. While queuing for the bathroom, Zak gave us tips on how to grow our Instagram audience (we are still working on it, as you can see @precariously_ever_after). Laura, who left her law firm to become a jewellery maker, gifted us with two silver bracelets after a brief conversation at breakfast. Many digital nomads are giving freely without thinking too much about what they could receive immediately in exchange. Unconditional generosity is a mantra amid digital nomads. They seem to trust that, in the end, the community universe will pay them back somehow. “Seek accounting help, offer yoga class” a purple post-it on one of the major noticeboards.

3. Don’t give up. Leaving a secure job and venturing out on your own can be a daunting experience. Many digital nomads we met still have a hard time convincing their friends and families that they’re not just “wasting their lives and careers”. Some find it’s easier to overcome the challenge when they surround themselves with like-minded people living a similarly liquid life, free from the judgments, expectations and pressures they might face at home. “I keep close to those who celebrate me and stay away from those who just tolerate me”, says Max from Munich, who has been living in Bali for three years and just launched a Youtube channel with his girlfriend.

The ultimate secret to success for many: iron-clad faith in themselves and a willingness to keep on keeping on. Literally every hostel, every café is decorated with inspirational and motivational quotes. Most digital nomads we met had a rags-to-riches story to tell from the time they hit rock bottom until – miraculously – a person showed up in their lives who turned everything around. Just like Wahyu, who had miscalculated his cash flow and his business partner’s reliability when opening Bali Nomad House, a small coworking hostel, ended up broke and depressed, but continued to believe he had a purpose. He clung to his dream until he met Vikram, founder of Singapore’s co-working/co-living space Tribe Theory, who loved his hostel, incorporated it in his chain and made him the startup’s country manager.

Original article written by Nicolò Andreula and Vera Sprothen on Linkedin