Digital Nomad: A Transition
(Above) Home sweet home, boondocked for a week in Lockheed Martin's parking lot.
Hello. My name is Adam, and I'm a digital nomad. Wikipedia defines us as "individuals who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living and, more generally, conduct their life in a nomadic manner." If I'm being candid, that sounds entirely unimaginative, and what fun is life without imagination? I prefer to think of us as the wise ones who have realized all time is fleeting and have chosen to pursue an existence that embraces the words of T.S. Eliot:
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
We long to experience the world around us, deeply and without hesitation, with each new sunrise. To finger the furrowed bark of the great sequoias that call to mind our own insignificance. To walk the halls of museums multitudinous and bear witness to all that we are capable of by attempting to traverse the indeterminate breadth between creation and destruction. To delicately breathe in the geologic bouquets of Yellowstone and learn about the volatile earth below our feet. To taste the foods prepared with a palette of flavors that do more to describe a region and its people than the names on a map. To simmer in the richness of a life shared with others by encountering new friends and reacquainting with old.
We pursue this life pragmatically, without the luxury of wealth or an overabundance of leisure. We must spend some portion of our days in toil, but technology has helped us shed the tethers of the traditional corporate world, enabling a career that attempts to emphasize balance, where the work created by the individual is paramount to where that work was created. I'm not here to teach you how to become a digital nomad, for I only know the path that I took to get here, and the roads are as numerous as the destinations. Instead, I'd like to touch on what I love about this life and the necessary sacrifices required for the freedom we enjoy.
I work for Lockheed Martin as a software engineer and did not believe it would be possible to live this life while staying with the corporation. I had assumed a Fortune 500 company, particularly one so entrenched in the business of defense, would be opposed to full time telecommuters. It was, however, my previous manager who, after hearing about our dream to be nomadic in a candid conversation, inspired me to search for a virtual position within the corporation and even went so far as to show me how to set up an automated search on the internal job board. It wasn't long before something intriguing landed in my inbox, and a month later I was transitioning from a cleared position writing Ada for fighter jet trainers to one developing web technologies in the realm of cyber security. In doing so, I took a step down and a five-digit pay cut, but we considered it the necessary sacrifice for the freedom to pursue our dream.
Much of my career in aerospace had been spent working closely with a team in a lab. I had little idea of what to expect working a virtual job where I would have no cubicle, much less a lab full of humming hardware and fellow engineers. In fact, I didn't even have a dedicated workspace in our coach. I spent my first week on site with my new team in an empty cubicle before returning home, feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. I was headed into new territory without a map, and I was both thrilled and terrified. Mostly, I felt alone.
According to an article recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, one of the more significant challenges to working virtually is missing out on the mutually beneficial practice of collaboration. Serendipity happens when sharing an office with your team, where old problems are solved and new challenges are imagined during brief moments of impromptu collaboration. The effect is often referred to as hallway innovation, and it's a big reason why tech leaders like Google believe in collocating their employees, offering them spaces to interact beyond the traditional cubicle or conference room. If a team is virtual, this type of creative collaboration does not happen organically. As I am the only virtual member of my team, the impetus to initiate collaboration often falls squarely on my shoulders. I must use every tool at my disposal--phone calls, email, screen-shares, and instant messages--in an effort to feel connected and engaged with my team. Depending on the traits of one's personality, this pressure to stay connected can prove exhausting. As I'm somewhat introverted, I find I must remind myself to reach out to each member of my team every few days to feel connected. The benefit is feeling I'm part of a highly functional, collaborative team who has not forgotten me because I'm not seen at the water cooler. It's not a replacement for being in an office, but a compromise I make willingly.
Because I was so focused on virtual collaboration, I was almost entirely blindsided by the difficulty of defining a clear separation between work life and home. Jenn and I moved into our Itasca Meridian with an Irish Wolfhound, a Chihuahua, and our eight-month-old daughter two weeks before I joined my new team. We went from a charming home of 1300 square feet to a coach of roughly 400 square feet, which is admittedly lavish in the realm of wheeled homes. Nonetheless, life as I had known it had been turned upon its head. I no longer drove to an office where I would spend hours in a lab with seven other engineers. Instead, I simply shuffled from the bed to the sofa where I reclined beneath a bamboo lap desk, often still sporting my pajamas. My workspace served as office, entertainment, and casual dining depending on the time. The boundaries I had erected to separate work from home were fragile and translucent.
I ultimately realized that I had to do more to mentally and physically separate my work environment from home, and I had to be okay with those boundaries changing from one day to the next. I had to learn how to differentiate those hours that are little more than the lulls in the natural ebb and flow of motivation from those where my propensity for productivity was being challenged by my environment. Some days I can work from the sofa or dining table quite contentedly for hours on end, while others require more distance from the distractions of home. On those days, I can be found working anywhere from a hammock in the woods to a table at the local library, my location only limited by my ability to connect digitally. Now that I understand what I need to stay motivated and be productive, I find the flexibility in work environments exhilarating. Unfortunately, now that work and workspace are no longer so tightly coupled, it's easy to feel compelled to keep the laptop open longer, threatening the very balance our new lifestyle longs for.
It took time for me to feel comfortable with my new virtual role. I was working with new technologies with which I had little (if any) professional experience. We had just barely survived a very compressed transition from house to RV. We were still navigating the unfamiliar waters of parenthood, desperately longing to find our sea legs. Time heals all and the sense of balance was eventually restored. I began to feel more like a contributor at work than a leech of knowledge. I had found the intrinsic motivation required to work as the only virtual member of a small software development team. I felt free to live, to explore.
My transition to digital nomad has afforded me the freedom to work when I feel productive, and take a break when I don't. I can turn off the computer for a few hours during the day, when we might go for a hike or explore a museum without fighting the weekend crowds. In turn, we have stopped living for the weekends and started living each day. We try to be present. We have begun to live as deeply as possible in each place because we understand the time we have there is brief.
I'm approaching my sixth month of being a digital nomad and I'm here to tell you it's worth it. If you share in the dream we had, it is up to you to make it happen. It is not easy, and the adventure does not come without compromise or sacrifice. This life does not work for everyone, and I'll admit that we are still settling in with the nomadic rhythms. If you have the dream, I beg you to share it with others. You never know what opportunities you might encounter once you embrace your vision and pursue it wholeheartedly. Yell it to the hills and waste not a moment, for time is fleeting and the world around us is awfully big.