Ditching the office to work in paradise as a “digital nomad” has a hidden dark side

A quick walk in paradise.
A quick walk in paradise.
Image: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
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After launching NomadList and RemoteOk, Pieter Levels became something of a common name in the burgeoning digital nomad community. Online he could be seen posting photos from Hong Kong one day, and tweeting from Thailand the next. His blog quickly became a place of inspiration for despairing office workers stuck at their 9 to 5 jobs. But as it turns out, even nomads can get tired of wandering.

A couple of weeks ago I was traveling through Berlin when I heard a rumor that Levels had settled down in Amsterdam. Just six months before that, I myself had flamed out as a failed digital nomad suffering from loneliness. And I had a feeling that I wasn’t alone. I wondered if Levels had experienced the same feeling.

In 2008, The Economist ran a special story on businessmen who were traveling the world with their Blackberrys and laptops. It was a novel idea at the beginning of the mobile era. With the exception of a couple of books published in the 1990s, this was one of the first mentions of digital nomads in the mainstream media. But, as the magazine reported, the idea of digital nomadism was anything but new: “In the 1980s Jacques Attali, a French economist who was advising president François Mitterrand at the time, used the term (nomad) to predict an age when rich and uprooted elites would jet around the world in search of fun and opportunity.” The frenchman’s prediction turned out to be prophetic.

In the years that followed the story, dozens of individuals started online blogs cashing in on the newfound popularity of digital nomadism–that is, people who have left behind the traditional office structure for the express purpose of working anywhere in the world. By 2009, National Geographic and Dell launched corporate blogs dedicated to it. And by 2010 there was an entire industry of conferences, online courses, and publications built around the concept.  The promise of the idea was captured in a common slogan: “Get paid to travel the world.” 

The digital nomad movement distinguished itself from straight telecommuting by combining travel and remote work. It was a millennial’s dream, an endless vacation. As the movement grew, tropical cities like Chiang-Mai in Thailand and the island of Bali in Indonesia began to fill up with wanderlusting internet entrepreneurs. (A side benefit was the arbitrage opportunity presented to travelers earning US dollars in regions where the local currency was weak).

After graduating from university in Amsterdam with an MBA in 2012, Pieter Levels also decided to give this lifestyle a shot. He had quickly realized how boring life could be after college and was looking for a change. “I wanted to escape. I thought I’d just fly to the other side of the world and go on an adventure,” he told me.

He travelled to dozens of countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Then his businesses took off and he began earning tens of thousands dollars every month. He has become a digital nomad success story. A year and half into his travels, he seemed to be living the dream. Or so he thought. 

“I was standing in my apartment in Medellin, Colombia looking out the window, and I realized I don’t know anyone here,” he recalled. “I was thinking this is not what I should be doing. Like, this looks really great if I take a photo, but I don’t feel any connection.”

Then the depression set in. “I started feeling lost. I started asking, ‘Who am I?’ A large part of [your identity] is your environment. When you’re moving around from place to place, and you aren’t making long-term friends, you lose a big part of your identity. I’m a pretty strong and stable person, but I wasn’t prepared for that.”

His nomadic lifestyle gave him freedom, but ultimately what he needed was intimacy. This realization was reinforced after a friend visited him in Colombia. He wanted to go back to Amsterdam, where he could take a 30-minute train ride and visit his family in person instead of via a computer screen.

It’s understandable that the life of a digital nomad can be tough on a psychological level. There is plenty of research that suggests in-person contact is an important aspect of working relationships. At the same time, psychologists say loneliness can literally be bad for your health. As reported by the American Psychological Association:

In one meta-analysis of 148 studies comprising more than 308,000 people, for example, Brigham Young University psychologists found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over the studies’ given periods than those with weaker connections—a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.

Levels noted his own struggles with an isolated lifestyle. “At some point you realize what you have looks pretty boring on paper,” he said. “Maybe you have four or five close friends, and a house, and a TV. Then you look on Instagram and see all these photos of places like Bali and think ‘What am I doing here?’ If you could copy all the stuff you have at home and bring it to those places that’d be great,” he told me.

He realized that he had to make a choice. And so, after three years on the road, Levels boarded a plane and went home. In February he moved back into an apartment in Amsterdam.

The ultimate moral of this story? Life as a digital nomad is much more complicated than those beautiful Instagram tableaus might imply. What’s refreshing about Levels is he isn’t afraid to speak truthfully about these issues, despite his personal stake in the industry. At this point, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have an angle when it comes to the lifestyle. “People are obviously trying to sell books, or build a business around (the movement),” he noted. “But it’s been presented as way too positive. There are so many downsides to it.”

This isn’t to say that Levels has decided to quit traveling—far from it. But he has decided to once again put down roots. It’s an important distinction.

While few and far between, there are others who have worried about the same thing. In 2013, high-profile blogger Mark Manson wrote about the dark side of nomadism, specifically the way it can lead to a damaging narcissism. And while plenty of people may find the digital nomadic lifestyle enjoyable—at least for now—this leads Levels to wonder if, like him, some nomads don’t even realize how lost they’ve become. 

When I spoke with Levels, it was 2am in Amsterdam. He told me that he had to be quiet since his girlfriend was sleeping in the other room. He didn’t have a view of the beach or a mountain range or even a city street. His apartment looked about as normal as any I’ve seen. But there was something about it that I recognized instantly. It was a home.

Update (8/8/16): This story has been updated with further information from Pieter Levels regarding his future travel plans.