Over the last few months I’ve met with and spoken to dozens of digital nomads in Chiang Mai to research my feature article on the nomad lifestyle – Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin. I’ve chatted with dozens more online and via email, and followed the progress of hundreds of nomads through their blogs and on social media. People interested in pursuing a digitally nomadic lifestyle can find great advice from successful nomads like Erin and Simon at Neverending Voyage, the Legal Nomad Jodi Ettenberg and Spartan Traveller Clayton Cornell. And I’ve captured some lessons from my own digital nomad experience – 4 steps to going nomad and the 3 core qualities of a digital nomad. But there is one truly essential resource that all digital nomads rely on, and every nomad I have spoken to has thought about it either directly or indirectly.
Digital nomads are a 21st century counter culture. The choices they take today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.
On the level of technology this is obvious. The internet – the network of networks – is the foundational technology without which digital nomads could not work. Websites, blogs, social media, podcasts, even just simple email. Without the now ubiquitous frameworks of the internet the idea of running a global business from a remote corner of the world would simply be unthinkable.
But it’s the intangible networks of human relationships that are most valuable to successful digital nomads. And precisely because they are hard to see, they are too often neglected by people who set out on the nomad trail. They are as important in any traditional creative career path, but when you add the additional dynamics of travel and the digital nomad community itself, it’s hard to overstate how central the network is.
If a web designer in Chiang Mai is working regularly it’s because they’re connected to a widespread network of other designers, and have likely been cultivating a network of clients for some years. If a coder in Ho Chi Minh City is equaling the income they might have made in Europe of America, it’s because they know the network of the programming world that can bring that work to them. For an entrepreneur the equivalent networks include business advisors, venture capital funds and other investors and so on.
For creators of all kinds, artists and even jobbing writers like myself, those networks can be tremendously complex. The more creative the task, the less established and obvious its networks are. Earlier this week I spoke to a well established painter whose work sells across the United States and Europe and who spends nine months of the year in Chiang Mai. When he isn’t absorbed in the creation of his work – the main reason he chooses to live in Thailand – he is busy maintaining relationships with the few dozen collectors who admire his work, the galleries and agents who represent it, and the fellow artists whose work it is conceptual related to. It’s this network of less than a hundred people that allows him to practice as a professional artist.
Because the technology of modern networks is so shiny and impressive, it’s all to easy to waste a great deal of time and money on it. You can spend £$thousands on computers and equipment, invest weeks in developing a website, and hours of every day in generating content and placing Google and Facebook ads. And these can all be worthy investments. But only if there is a network there to engage with your product – be it high art, a business start-up or an online app. Beyond the quality of your project – which is always paramount – it is the health of the network supporting and engaging with it that will determine its success.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the primary reason many digital nomad projects are directed at digital nomads is because this is the first and most obvious network many have to work with. And it’s not a terrible starting point. But, it is a limited network unless you can quickly reach beyond it.)
The most valuable question you can ask of any new idea, project or business is, what network does it engage with? What is your existing network? How can you grow your network? Who are the other people and businesses that you will naturally connect with if you execute your idea? Building a network is a whole skillset in and of itself, but it is not one any digital nomad can afford to ignore. And being aware of its importance is the first step to engaging with it.