18 lessons learned after 18 months on the road

Sophia Cheng / 10 min read / Digital Nomad Days
8 May 2017
Being a digital nomad and taking stock

Realising we’ve been on the road for over a year and that we’re set to continue for a while longer has renewed my enthusiasm to write more and share more. With Many Roots is now on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with a new logo to boot! To mark this milestone, I’ve reflected on 18 things I’ve learnt so far.
Do you relate to any of them? Do you disagree?

The lifestyle

1 – De-bunk: ‘living the dream’
We’ve had plenty of people over the last 18 months say this; along with ‘you’re so lucky’, ‘I’m so jealous’. I’ve heard it so much that I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to break it down. Invariably when you bring to fruition an idea, a plan, a lifestyle you’ve been thinking about for sometime – it moves from the lofty realm of fantasy to a grittier reality. There are some phenomenal highs. But I’ve noticed that often the lows are lower and the fall can be faster. It can be tough going and there are times when it’s downright miserable. A few experiences can knock you back quickly and seeking refuge in safe and comfortable spaces is often luck of the draw.

Is it all luck? No, I don’t think it is. Of course, there’s an element of good fortune and I am grateful, but looking back we’ve been laying the ground work to enable this lifestyle for a while, in small ways. It happened because we made it happen. Because I was set on making it happen.

The way I see it, the real luck was being born in the UK. Mixed-race but into a society that just counted me as ‘English’, no more questions asked. Being born into a family where I was cared for, safe and given access to education and an income that allowed many experiences. It’s a birth lottery. In the UK, the average salary puts you in the top 2.4% of the world’s wealthiest population.

And yet, why is it so British to feel down on our luck? The underdog? When viewed on a global scale we are some of the most privileged people on the planet. In my view, our society’s tentacles have entwined us into, what is let’s face it, an outdated model of what ‘life should be’; university degrees we rarely use, overworked in our jobs few of us are lucky to be passionate about and often in debt. I talk to my peers here, because I cannot talk on behalf of others with different lived experience; If you feel disgruntled, unhappy – 9 times out of 10 you probably have the ability to unshackle yourself from that. It’s not easy mind, but it is possible. (Check out Jon Jandai’s TED talk on Life is Easy for further inspiration: )

2 – Energy ebbs and flows
I’ve noticed that after a bout of intensive travel days, when we get to a new place, we slump. Our energy drops, along with our enthusiasm and mood. It distressed me to start with, I thought I was being ungrateful to the new places, turning down new experiences for lie ins and days of moody silence. But as the pattern has emerged I can spot the signs and try and let it run its course. Something small can turn the corner, an inspiring conversation, an energetic bike ride and I’m back on the up.

3 – Many days will be average, some will be shit.
Managing your expectations is important. It’s a marathon not a sprint. You won’t be on top form everyday and that’s ok. Some days I don’t want to talk to anyone and swap my historical fiction for an episode of Only Fools and Horses. I’ll sulk or I’ll cry, or I’ll sulk until I cry. Sometimes a small fix or a friendly conversation can help, sometimes I just have to wait it out and feel my way out. I’m far from getting this process right all the time but I am trying to exercise more patience with myself.

4 – Guilt and shame as your companion
I can rationalise that my exploration is a healthy, even essential questioning of the society I was born into. But guilt and often shame still sit beside me. Gnawing at me, that I’ve abandoned my family, my responsibility. That I should be at home fixing the people who aren’t fixing themselves. Maybe it’s an inherited, wayward-Catholic thing, but I chastise my choices as much as I congratulate them. Does anyone else get that? I hope to write more on this in a follow-up post.

5 – Can’t fight the craving for consistency
I thought I could beat this, I thought I laughed in the face of routine. But alas, it rules me. Without it I procrastinate, I dally; with it I make time to focus on my health, wellbeing and structure my working hours so I can give myself some time off.

6 – With great flexibility comes great responsibility
It has been suggested that a nomadic lifestyle is a new wave of colonialism; “the potentially neocolonialist overtones of enjoying the fruits of a cheap, ‘exotic’ setting while creating an almost parallel economy and social circle.” Read on here. From giving honest impressions of my home country, to getting to know the places and the people I visit, listening more than I speak, spreading my spending, consuming ethically where possible and giving what I can (which is probably more thank you think) are all things we’re committed to.

7 – Testing the relationship
It’s been me and the boy on the road for the last 18 months – and it’s been intense. Our own moods oscillate, and if you remember GCSE physics, that can mean we’re nicely in tune, or sinking twice as fast or even taking turns dragging the other one up. Realising that I’m probably angry because I am hungry has been the greatest revelation of my 20s and learning to articulate that has saved the relationship on numerous occasions.

Being the outsider

8 – FOMO is a fact of life
I’ve missed a few weddings, I haven’t seen some of my friends’ new children and I’m really gutted to be missing many 30th birthday parties taking place this year. From someone who liked being ‘at the opening of a letter’, as I’ve been described in the past, FOMO (fear of missing out) has taken some adjusting too. There are events I don’t get invited to, there are WhatsApp groups without me and there are in-jokes I no longer understand.

9 – A lot of people don’t care or can’t relate to what you’re doing
Lots of people don’t give a monkey’s what I’m up to. They might ask the polite opener, ‘So where are you these days?’ but it’s like asking ‘How’s it going?’ when you don’t care for the answer. It’s a good wake up call. For those that are genuinely interested, I believe it’s important to be honest – if I’m feeling low, I’ll reach out to a close friend and open up. I also believe it’s good to meet people on the road who are on a similar wavelength, not just for self-congratulatory purposes but to let off steam and re-motivate. We are heavily influenced by the people we surround ourselves with, if we want nomadism to continue, we seek out nomads.

10 – Other people’s lives don’t stop because you pop home for a week
Another healthy dose of realism. I attempt to minimise the potential rejection by getting into people’s diaries insanely early when I have a few weeks pitstop back in the UK.

The travelling

11 – Networks help keep you grounded
Being on the move for an extended period of time means it can be difficult to ground yourself and find people you connect with. Being part of networks can really help that. For me, being part of the Impact Hub, a global community and co-working spaces. I have received warm welcomes in Malaysia, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Colombia and it’s often led to serendipitous moments if not just good conversations over a beer or two.

12 – Schedule in do-nothing days
Plan, plan and plan. Where will we go next, where will we stay, what will we see, who we will meet? It’s often endless. And so ‘dedicated do-nothing day’s have offered a welcome respite. I might not see that temple or museum but I let myself catch up, rest and reflect. Give yourself permission; It’s ok to do nothing. (I often have to repeat this one to myself!)

13 – It’s all relative
Any place you visit has the potential to be excellent or a bit crap – and what I’ve noticed is that more than the physical environment it’s my mood or attitude coming into the place that has a greater impact. So take all recommendations from fellow travellers with a pinch of salt!

14 -There will always be things you didn’t see
We missed the most famous gallery in Madrid, we were in California for 2 months and never made it to San Diego, stayed in Granada, Nicaragua for 3 months and didn’t get to Ometepe! The list goes on. I have to remind myself, it’s not a full-time holiday; it’s a full-time job in different places.

15 – Take stock regularly
It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come, how our attitudes have changed or just how much Spanish I’ve really picked up (just me?). I’m a Moleskine journal type-of-gal and I love looking back every now and then to jump into a previous mindset. Oh and I use Journey quite a bit as well!

The work

16 – The work/life balance battles on
One of the reasons I left London was to establish a better work life balance – an elusive concept to most Londoners. But 18 months on I haven’t mastered it yet. Tied into the guilt, I often overwork to validate my nomadic existence. And this doesn’t mean productive work but a listless session at my laptop that feels a bit like work. One thing that I am now committed to is 5 days offline every quarter. I’ve managed to do this three times in the last 9 months with a 4th lined up for the end of June – these have boosted my wellbeing no end and encourage me to connect with where I am now, away from the digital world.

17 – Look after your body
Hours hunched over a laptop is not a good look. I’ve invested in my mobile office to minimise back pain like buying a Roost (see my review blog). I try and stick to my daily stretching routine even if my cardio ambitions fall by the way side. And get a massage regularly!

And finally..

18 – Sharing is caring – blog launch
I’ve wrestled with this one for a while. Is sharing caring or is it really gloating? I’ve noticed a lot of blogs I’ve digested over the last year and a half are often practical or are of the ‘Everything is Awesome‘ school of writing. Practical advice is essential and I’m grateful for it, inspiration is also key but I do think there is room for some straight-talking content that might give people insight into taking this step forward.

So – with this in mind – we’re going to share more of our experiences, more often. We’ve got a bunch of hopefully-better-than-your-average photos we’d like to share as well. Thanks to Louise, for the logo, With Many Roots will now be the platform for these stories. Find out more about us, and drop us a line – we can take constructive criticism (or at least learning to!)

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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