Why Being a Digital Nomad Boosted My Career

By: Smith Schwartz |

We’ve been digital nomads for the past two years. I’ve written about this lots and given a few talks extolling the virtues of living this way and how it’s been a boost to both of us personally as well as professionally. So, when several friends emailed me Alex Pszczolkowski’s post on HN on why being a digital nomad isn’t working for him, it seemed like the right time to explain why it is working for us.

Working while traveling presents a wide range of interesting ordeals and headaches, but for me, the hassles and extra logistics are ultimately worth it.

It doesn’t work to think of travel the same way you vacation. Moving around every few days doesn’t lend itself to being productive at work, and frankly can just wear you out. Our goal is to travel at a pace that allows us to capture the subtlety of daily life in the neighborhoods and cities that we visit. This means we usually spend about a month or two in each city we live in.

This means we don’t end up with your typical backpacker checklist of tourist sites and countries visited, but we move at a slow pace that allows for exploration yet still facilitates a normal work schedule and professional development. We do lots of advance research and do our best to make sure we have decent wifi and comfortable working environments. This is key, and the ability to produce good work is what keeps this train moving along.

Funny thing is, something we didn’t anticipate, living on the road really enlivened a passion for work that we didn’t foresee. When you’re without commutes and many social obligations, we both found lots more time and energy to delve into things that are interesting to us.

For instance, Erik has been a software developer for a bunch of years and has always really enjoyed it and always taken it very seriously. When we were living in Chicago, he spent lots of his free time writing music. But lo and behold, we go on this trip and it’s super tough to fit a drumset into an overhead bin, so it sparked a certain desire to incorporate this creative outlet into the programming work that he was already doing. By changing our perspective, those things that we already do can become tremendously rewarding in different ways.

For me, the story was a little bit different. In order to set out on the road I had to leave a position I really enjoyed at The Art Institute of Chicago. I loved the job for a host of reasons but it was tied to one specific place. In order to live and work on the road, I made the transition to front-end developer and designer. It’s been an interesting journey, but I’ve found there are amazing parallels between the two worlds. In the museum world, I had to take content provided by curators, a design by exhibition designers and take into account the ideas and desires of various stakeholders from artists whose work is being shown, to the carpenters building the sets, to executives who’ve donated large sums of money and synthesize this all into a safe, secure, accessible and delightful environment that is easy for the user to navigate and understand. It’s really not that different than building websites.

I’ve slowly built up my freelance practice over the past year from taking on individual clients to working with a couple development and design shops that funnel work my way. For me, this is a much better situation, I get to work with and learn from a team and bite into projects that are a bit meatier than when I was completely on my own. Building a fulfilling work life as a freelancer takes time and patience, especially when moving around as much as I do, but it is possible to establish longer lasting relationships that set the stage for bigger (and more fun) projects on the road.

That said, this kind of life just isn’t for everyone. But for us, the benefits are still outweighing the costs. We get to spend lots of time visiting family and friends all over the place, hang out in beautiful and interesting places all while pushing ourselves personally and professionally, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.