von Markus Albers

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How to be a long term traveling Digital Nomad – Interview with Rolf Potts


Here we go – my first English blogpost. Why not in German? Three reasons:

1) More convenient for international users: I started twittering in English from time to time as I know some friends from all over the world are following me. So why not do a blogpost in English every now and then?

2) Testing the range of German versus English posts: In theory many more users will be able to read this. Will the numbers of my website go up?

3) Pure laziness: I didn’t feel like translating the entire interview I did with travel writer Rolf Potts. Also I didn’t want to edit it, because all his answers are insightful, wise and pragmatic at the same time.

For those of you who are not familiar with Rolf’s work yet: Rolf Potts (pictured above) has reported from more than fifty countries for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and The Guardian. He has been a travel columnist for Salon.com and World Hum, and has written two terrific non-fiction books: “Vagabonding” and – lately – “Marco Polo didn’t go there”. Also Rolf is the person behind travel blog vagabonding.net.

What I wanted to know from Rolf is: How can I be a long-term traveler and still do serious work? In other words: What’s the best way to be a Digital Nomad in 2009? Here’s part one of the interview:

Rolf, you are an advocate of travelling a lot and over long periods. Why is this a desirable lifestyle at all? Many people are happy just staying at home on their sofas.

If people are fine at home on their sofas, that doesn’t bother me. My concern is not with people who have no desire to travel; I’m more interested in people who dream about traveling long-term, but have somehow been convinced they don’t have the time or money or information necessary to do this.

There are far too many people sitting at home on their sofas out of inertia — out of the idea that this is a “normal” way to live. But for too many people, this “normal” life isn’t very rewarding. Too many people are not happy sitting on the sofa and watching TV while their life goes by. These are the people who need to hear that taking time off to travel isn’t that difficult or expensive. They need reassurance that a life on the road can be full of possibility and new experiences. They need to be
reminded that their time is all they truly own, and that they should be spending their time in accordance with their dreams.

Is regular or long-term travelling for younger people only? When you have a proper job and even a family it tends to get much more difficult, right? Is it only for the wealthy?

Long-term travel has always been popular with young people, but it is certainly not exclusive to young people. Because young people have relatively more time and less responsibility than those in the professional world, it is easier for them to travel long-term — but this doesn’t mean they are the only people who can do this. Now as much as ever you have more and more young professionals taking time off to travel — or making their work portable, taking it on the road with them. This need not be seen as an act of rebellion or irresponsibility, but an act of simple common sense.

Henry David Thoreau once observed how most people spend “the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.” He was right. If you dream about long-term travel, there’s no need to relegate this experience to retirement or the far future. It’s something you can do know; you just have to make it a priority. It’s not about being wealthy, either — at least, not in terms of money. Some of the richest people in the world are too bound up by their wealth and possessions to really enjoy themselves. In truth, a modest income can take you most anywhere in the world, if you can manage it wisely and live simply.

Does technology (web-based workflow tools, Skype, smart-phones, etc.) make it easier to work and travel at the same time or even live and work abroad for a while? Any examples / anecdotes?

Technology definitely makes it easier to travel, live, and work abroad — and it’s getting easier every day. As recently as ten years ago, one of the challenges of travel was that you were out of contact with home for such long periods of time. Now one of the main challenges of travel is almost the opposite — how to break contact with home so that you can enjoy where you are. It’s come to the point where electronic technology keeps us so closely wired to our friends back home that at times you can feel like you never left. I call this the “electronic umbilical cord,” since it has a way of keeping you tethered to the life you are supposedly leaving behind.

On the positive side, the ubiquity of telecommunications technology is making it harder and harder for people to invent excuses for not leaving home and living their travel dreams. These days, leaving home doesn’t mean you’re dropping off the face of the earth. I’ve had friends who’ve moved their “home office” to Rio de Janeiro or Bangkok. I’ve had other friends who’ve traveled the world for a year just for pleasure, and were so savvy in maintaining professional skills and contacts that they had great jobs waiting for them when they got home. It’s really a matter of self-initiative, and making things happen in a positive way.

So people are becoming more mobile on a global scale? Is the world becoming flat or spiky in terms of opportunities to live whereever you want?

It’s definitely a good time in history to have a great job while simultaneously living wherever you want. Never before have there been so many opportunities to live a global lifestyle of your own design.

Does the digital economy with it’s new business models, virtual teams, mobile workstyles, self-branding via blogging, etc. make it easier for people to live the life they want? Gary Vaynerchuck said: “There is no reason in 2008 to do stuff that you hate. Ask yourself: Want do I want to do every day until the rest of my life? Do that! I promise, you can monetize that shit.“ True?

Definitely true — but you have to be active. You can’t sit around and wait for these opportunities to happen to you. You have to become a student of your own happiness, of your own ideal lifestyle. If you be savvy and take the initiative, there’s no reason why you can’t be doing exactly what you want.

Of course, this involves a little wisdom and self-reflection in knowing what you want. Here in the United States, far too many people think happiness revolves around being rich or famous, around being a big shot. In truth, happiness rarely hinges on material riches; it’s more a matter of having life options, of having the freedom to do what you love and grow in new directions.

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