An attractive millennial with a Macbook, lies in a hammock on a beautiful beach, next to a clear blue ocean, basked in sunlight, beside a refreshing cocktail. #Livingmybestlife. #Digitalnomad.

This might be the Instagram perfect image of laptop lifestyle, but it isn’t even close to the reality of being a successful digital nomad. A hammock provides no back support, the sand will clog the keys, the ocean’s water is perilous to tech, the sun makes the screen impossible to see, and drinking at work is generally a bad idea.

In the age of social media, it can be challenging to separate the hype from reality. On the one hand, some people view digital nomads as almost god-like in living this perfect existence of freedom and personal fulfillment. On the other hand, the digital nomad community is dismissed as being shallow and entitled, engaging in cliches and borderline fraudulent behavior. Neither of these positions fully capture the nuance of this incredible and rapidly growing section of the workforce.

What is a Digital Nomad, Really?

The term has become so overused as almost to lose all meaning. However, it is a fascinating lifestyle, with a surprisingly long history. For all but a tiny part of our history, humans have been nomadic by nature. Despite first emerging around 200,000 years ago, it was just 10,000 years ago that humans decided to pick a bit of land and put down roots. This was the first time that we stopped roaming and instead chose to settle.

Travel through the desert
In 1997, however, a book entitled Digital Nomad predicted that humans were about to re-enter an age of nomadic lifestyle, with the help of emerging technologies. Settling down to grow vegetables was a way for humans to become wealthy and live comfortably, but by the late 20th Century, it was becoming possible to earn and travel simultaneously for the first time.

In essence, a digital nomad is location independent and earns a living using online platforms, working remotely. They will commonly travel full time and not have a single place that they call home. In recent years, this lifestyle has grown in popularity. Some analysts believe that there will be more than a billion digital nomads by 2035, so we better get used to them.

Traveling as an Entrepreneur

Does running a nomad business make work more exciting or travel duller? In many ways, work and travel should be kept separately. The cost of flights and short term accommodation means you have to work twice as hard to cover the cost of living. Yet constant travel, scouting out coffee shops, and sleeping in strange places, are exhausting activities. Your productivity is bound to take a hit compared to working from home.

For this reason, many people dismiss the nomadic worker lifestyle as a lousy approach to work. If you love to travel, why not work, save up, and then take time off to really enjoy the countries that you visit? This viewpoint is missing something crucial about the digital nomad dream: the creative impulse.

Professor at Columbia Business School, Adam Galinsky, noted from his research that travel requires adaptation, deep thought, and cognitive flexibility. If you are running a YouTube channel or writing a travel blog, then foreign experiences offer the creative boost to keep original ideas flowing. For creative types, success simply couldn’t be found by working in the same office for 40 hours a week.

Nomadic Narcissism

As the digital nomad community grows, they are receiving their fair share of hate. Considered as egotistical and shallow, the label can be cringe-inducing for many. However, if you want to earn an income online, then self-promotion and social media addiction are almost prerequisites. If you aren’t building an audience, then it can be hard to gather the income required to live a comfortable life.

This puts digital nomads in a tricky position. On the one hand, you want to travel to the Earth’s remotest corners and be free from the stresses and complications of modern life. However, you also need a stable internet connection or else face lost income. You are both seeking refuge from modernity and entirely dependent upon it.

WiFi everywhere

Many location independent workers also want to promote a healthy lifestyle for improved mental health. Yet a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that using social media for less than 30 minutes a day decreases levels of loneliness and depression. For most digital nomads, this just isn’t possible. You are forced into a life of networking with other nomad entrepreneurs, who - judging by their Instagram stories - are having a much better experience than you. What sort of person chooses a job which increases loneliness and depression, while destroying their self-esteem?

It can be hard to get the balance right, but a digital nomad is as at risk as anyone of selling out their ideals for income. One way to counterbalance overconsumption of the internet and social media is with a digital detox. A study published in Mind found that 95% of participants experienced increased levels of wellbeing by putting down their smartphone and heading out into nature. Feelings of stress and anxiety are invariably replaced with feelings of calm and social connection.

It can be useful for digital nomads to fight claims of narcissism and social media addiction by finding time to take a break from technology. Human beings may be nomadic by nature, but we are not digital citizens by nature. We need to interact with the physical world and build physical connections with other humans. Writing travel blogs, running an online store, or making and selling the world’s best backpacks can be meaningful and passionate pursuits, but it is essential to find balance and time to escape the digital world.

The general public is polarized when it comes to the term digital nomad. It is a label with all sorts of connotations, some positive, some negative. However, it has a fascinating history and provides an insight into the human psyche. We are a species prone to exploration and adventure, rather than settling in one place. For the first time in over 10,000, it has become viable to live a nomadic existence once more.

Work-life balance is crucial
Furthermore, improved tech makes the rise of remote workers all but inevitable. This time, however, nomads need to be careful of the dangers of technology. Overall, labels are not the important thing. What matters is that everyone is free to follow their passions and is leading a balanced and healthy life.

Written by Thom Brown