The Realities of a Location Independent Life

Ever since my friend Lea Woodward coined the term “Location Independent” almost a decade ago, there’s been a migration of sorts, away from fixed location careers to creative and entrepreneurial solutions that allow outside the box thinkers to create what appears to be the best of both worlds. Gone are the days when a dream to travel the world meant trading your place on the career ladder. Gone are the days when having a successful career meant landing a “good job” right out of college, working hard and with company loyalty for thirty five years, and then getting a gold watch along with a solid retirement package on your way out.

Tired of boring board meetings?<br/>Connect with other location independent professionals
Tired of boring board meetings?
Connect with other location independent professionals

Folks like Chris Guillebeau and Tim Ferris have furthered the romantic notions and fueled the belief that it’s entirely doable to tailor your work to your lifestyle, build successful, responsible, lucrative careers while traveling, volunteering, and tango dancing your way across continents. I have personal friends who appear in both of their books, and our lives are a testimony to the fact that it’s not only possible, it’s well within the reach of anyone with the guts and the determination to make the leap. The web is populated with a ridiculous number of blogs by people doing just that.

Our lives are a testimony to the fact that it’s not only possible, it’s well within the reach of anyone with the guts and the determination to make the leap.

We get a lot of questions about how we manage our lives. How it’s possible for us to make more money working 20 hours a week and traveling the world with our kids than we did working more than 40 hours a week for a big computer company you’ve heard of.

The answer is, at once, easy and complicated

Tony working

The easy answer: we made the decision to change our lives and put in the hard work to make it happen, our way. The complicated answer: there’s not one answer, it’s a continual mosaic of the renegotiation of the terms of our life and income streams. We work with focus and determination. We’ve found the sweet spot of leveraging our existing skills in a new way. We got lucky, to an extent, because of the connections we had in the industry. It’s a continuous juggling act. There are trade offs, things lots of people wouldn’t be willing to do for getting to live our lives in a way that lots of people envy. It’s not as complicated or as simple as it looks.

If it’s possible for us, it’s possible for anyone.

We’ve been traveling full time for closing in on six years. We’ve worked from five continents. We started just following the market crash of 2008 and have more than replaced our previous career income. I’m 39, my husband is 41, we have four kids, ages 11-17, and all of the responsibilities and concerns that go with a bigger family.

If it’s possible for us, it’s possible for anyone. If you’re considering making the leap yourself, here are a few realities to think through and weigh carefully; the things that are sometimes lost in translation when folks post those pictures of bikini babes with a laptop open at the beach.

It’s work.

hotel office

I know, personally, about a hundred people who live fully location independent career lives. They are fantastic folks; some of the most creative and inspired people on the planet, and some of the hardest working people I know. Two of them fall into the “Four Hour Work Week” model (one has been featured by Tim on the site). The other 98 work considerably more than four hours per week. Even the two that are in the 4-10 hour a week category will be the first to tell you about the thousands of hours they put in up front to build a business right and afford them the freedom they now enjoy. Most of us in the community I’m aware of work in the neighborhood of 15-20 hours a week. I know a few who work their forty and then some.

There is no free lunch, and those of us making real money, the kind you can put kids through college on and save for retirement on, are working. The trick is to find the ways to work smarter instead of harder.

If you dive into a location independent career, either converting the skill set you currently have, or beginning an entrepreneurial venture, expect to work. There is no free lunch, and those of us making real money, the kind you can put kids through college on and save for retirement on, are working. The trick is to find the ways to work smarter instead of harder.

It’s (sometimes) harder work than you’re doing now

If you dream of traveling and working as you go, then be prepared to spin a whole new set of plates that you haven’t ever had to – time zone differences, connectivity issues, billing challenges, payment and business money management challenges exacerbated by your expat or nomadic lifestyle, to name a few.

Unless you’re able to take your existing job on the road….you’re going to be redefining your work life in such a way that makes you the CEO, secretary, billing department, and sales and marketing, in addition to project manager.

Be ready to be up at 2:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday for those regularly scheduled project management calls at 9:00 a.m. EST. Be prepared to plan your whole day around finding adequate connectivity for that radio interview or collaborative video call. Be prepared for the logistical challenges of managing clients who might be scattered across multiple continents. Be prepared to bite the bullet and spend more money on hiring the help you need to manage the details and then maintain those working relationships.

Unless you’re able to take your existing job on the road and keep the current organizational structure of your company, you’re going to be redefining your work life in such a way that makes you the CEO, secretary, billing department, and sales and marketing, in addition to project manager.

Balance is a challenge

Laptop

Anyone who is self employed will tell you that the biggest downside is that you are the bottom line, and you can’t really “go home” and leave work at work. There are phases of life when you’ll find yourself working every waking moment, far more than 40 hours a week.

For our family, we find our best work-life balance comes when we reserve mornings for work (and schooling) and afternoons for life and adventures.

If you bend toward the “workaholic,” then you might find it hard to unplug. Conversely, if you lack the discipline to work from home three days a week, then location independence may not be for you; no one is going to get you out of bed and insist that you clock in. It takes a while to find your groove, and there’s no one answer to the question of balance. For our family, we find our best work-life balance comes when we reserve mornings for work (and schooling) and afternoons for life and adventures. We aim for about twenty hours a week.

Working at the beach is (largely) bullshit

working from the pool

We’ve made many a conference call from the beach, to be fair. But in most of the world you won’t be taking out your machine to expose it to salt, sand, and potential theft at the beach. It makes for a great photo, but it’s not a daily reality. Every single location independent nomad that we know has a serious and structured work plan, and it rarely happens on the beach. You’ll need to find quiet, connectivity, and brain space conducive to accomplishing a lot in a relatively little amount of time. It goes to reason that if you’re expecting to cut your work time in half, you’re going to need to amp up your productivity, right? Part of that is working smart and outsourcing what you can. The other part is working hard with the time you have.

Every single location independent nomad that we know has a serious and structured work plan, and it rarely happens on the beach.

The other aspect of balance that bears consideration if you plan to live nomadically is how much and how fast you travel. It’s really difficult to find time to work consistently when you’re moving forward quickly. We’ve found that, for us, spending a month to three months in one place between periods of forward motion helps us to keep the balls in the air with our work projects. Think realistically about how much time you need and how much stability you need to deliver quality to your clientele.

Points of failure

If your career is truly location independent, chances are that means that your primary tools for developing income include a cell phone and a laptop. Do yourself a favor and invest in quality tools. Making do with less than the ideal will increase your frustration and reduce your productivity. These tools will also be the biggest potential points of failure for your career infrastructure. What if they are stolen or lost? What if they are damaged? You’ll want layers of contingencies for that sort of emergency so that you’re not all of a sudden up the proverbial creek without a paddle. External back up drives are obvious. Don’t store them in the same bag as your primary machines. Cloud back ups done regularly, are also a good option. However, where internet connectivity is less than optimal, they can be prohibitively slow or very costly when paying by the MB for data. The use of services like Evernote, Dropbox, or Google Drive, to name a few, increase your odds of not losing large amounts of important data if the worst happens.

Consider carefully the kind of equipment you need to work effectively and invest the time, money and maintenance into a professional set up.

Consider insuring your expensive pieces of equipment. We had a Macbook Air fall prey to a kid accident (a glass of water was dumped into the keyboard) because we’d added the $20 “contents of the vehicle” rider to our RV insurance, in New Zealand, we had a brand new machine, restored with a Time Machine backup within three days. Consider carefully the kind of equipment you need to work effectively and invest the time, money and maintenance into a professional set up.

Consider some things a business expense

Laptop

Traveling long term, with our careers in our backpacks, means that we are not always the budget travelers that we aspire to be. Hostel internet often sucks and common rooms aren’t great places to have a tete a tete with a Fortune Five Hundred CEO. We often spend the money to stay somewhere with the privacy we need to get work done, and connectivity that caters to business travelers, not bloggers. If it is an expense that allows you to develop income, then it’s a business expense. You’ll want to invest in the best possible cell service package in a country. Sometimes, we invest in two or three different ones to ensure adequate coverage as we travel around. Sometimes, you have to spend money to make money.

Sometimes location independence is a deal breaker; be prepared for that and learn to work with the clientele who are a good fit for your philosophy and lifestyle.

Be prepared to fly to a client if necessary. Our primary contacts know that if a job requires it, Tony will fly in and make a several week face to face visit to solve a problem when they need it. He’s done it in the past, and as a result, those clients are comfortable with our shifting locations because they know that their needs come first. On the flip side, understand that as a location independent contractor, you’re not going to land every single job. Sometimes location independence is a deal breaker; be prepared for that and learn to work with the clientele who are a good fit for your philosophy and lifestyle; you need not be all things to all people.

Does it sound like I’m trying to dissuade you from your dream of living and working anywhere and everywhere? Definitely not! I’m a firm believer that anyone who has the desire and determination can find a way to create a location independent career. We know teachers, musicians, jugglers, bloggers, geologists, microbiologists, psychologists, writers, software developers, hospitality and service professionals, editors, chefs, people in the insurance industry, artists, mechanical experts, carpenters, and lots of other people who have found ways to take their shows on the road.

The only limits? Your creativity and determination!

So tell me, what’s your plan for creating location independence?

Check out the following for more on working abroad and creating a location independent lifestyle:


rtw-wednesday

Jenn Miller has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.

Manifesto - replace broad expectations with nuanced realities

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Tony Miller and may not be used without permission.





Leave a Comment

  • Benson Wallace said at 2014-02-15T10:36:07+0000: Hi Jen, excellent article as always. I'm a big fan of the way you tackle big topics in your writing. I remember being deeply moved by you writing about how the passing of your grandmother was a turning point in your life. At 34 with a 95 year old grandmother whom I don't visit nearly enough, I can relate. My question is about teaching and location independence. You mentioned in your article that you have friends who are teachers and location independent... can I ask how they do it? I studied engineering but opted for a career in international education because you can pretty much choose what country you want to live in. But you still have to stay in one place for a semester, often 2 years, and show up to school 5 days a week for ~40 weeks a year. If you're lucky you can just show up for your classes. But you can't teach from a laptop in Thailand...or can you?
  • Soultravelers3.com- Around the World Family Travel Education Adventure! said at 2013-12-11T15:43:46+0000: So true Jen, that anyone can do this if they set their mind to it and are willing to do what it takes! We at Soultravelers3 were case studies in both 4 Hour Work Week and The Art of Non-Conformity books and are well into our 8th year of non-stop travel. We were inspired by the Terhorsts who retired early at 35 and have been perpetual travelers for 25 years and still loving it!Sure, like any life, there are some challenges, but I only wish we had done it even earlier and we have no plans to stop. As Tim Ferris said about us, "you don't have to be rich to live a rich life" and it is also the very best education for our 21st century kids, especially if you add language immersion....so I say go for it for anyone dreaming about it.Learn as you go and tweak it for your particular needs. The funny thing is, it is really a lot easier than most not doing it realize.
  • Divergent Travelers said at 2013-12-11T19:53:56+0000: There is so much truth to this. We are currently make that move away from working the 9 to 5 to the digital nomad lifestyle. People think we're off on a big vacation, however, we will probably be working harder in our new lives than we are at the desk right now!
  • Kissairis Munoz said at 2013-12-11T17:15:15+0000: This was one of the most helpful posts that I've read about becoming location independent. Great, practical advice not filled with the usual "it's not all fun and games." Bookmarking now for future reference. Thanks!
  • Houpis Choupis said at 2013-12-11T17:38:22+0000: great article. very informative about the realities of location-independent work realities, thanks!
  • Adam Finan said at 2013-12-11T19:27:57+0000: Anyone who brings a laptop to the beach is kidding themselves!... Its all hotel rooms and cafes in Chiang Mai!