Three big life lessons learned in 3 years on the road

Sophia Cheng / 8 min read / Digital Nomad Days
11 December 2018
Community | Curiosity | Time

At a time when many of my peers were beginning to bed down, I chose to uproot. Shed my belongings, clear out the routines and leave the ‘known’ behind. I always said I’d get back on the road again before I turned 30, and with that milestone looming I left the rented London scene in October 2015.

And what a three years it has been. What I have seen, touched, smelled, tasted. And of course, what I have felt; elation, loneliness, serendipity, confusion, luck, frustration, exhaustion, joy.
At 18 months I pulled together a blog on 18 lessons I had learned to date. Much of it still rings very true. At the three year point however, there are three lessons I’ve learned that are less tangible but more fundamental.

1. Need for community

It’s taken me a long time to realise this, partly because in many ways being nomadic often conjures up images of ‘going it alone’. I thought I was turning my back on needing other people. But community is something distinct. It’s separate from an extrovert’s need to connect with others, it’s bigger than that and doesn’t exclude introverts. It’s that sense of being part of something larger than your individual self and gaining strength from the communal. It’s hard to identify what’s missing when you’ve never had it. I’m not religious and never went to congregations. Growing up my focus was on friends. I was good at fitting in. Coming across Alain de Botton’s idea of atheism 2.0 had me thinking about communal gatherings and community.

There are different types of communities, and probably many I’m yet to experience. As a nomad it falls into two categories for me: communities by proximity, and communities by values and shared experiences.

Maybe Facebook and I had the same realisation at the same time. My yearning for community coincided with the push of Facebook Groups. I joined different groups based on the two types of community I had identified I needed. Some of the most nourishing for me have been the Local Minimalists Group, Journey to Zero Waste and Digital Nomad Girls.

I stepped up my digital community commitment by joining a paid membership group started by Jen Lachs, founder of the DNG Facebook group, the Inner Circle (or if you fancy it via this affiliate link). After a couple of months lurking I pushed myself to get more involved, joining remote co-working sessions. These Zoom meetings are structured work sessions of 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. These interludes allow for the slow percolation of relationships, both personal and professional, for support and stretching conversation, new ideas and consistency. This has been invaluable to me.

When it comes to real life, MeetUp is now my go-to when I arrive to a new place. While I very much enjoy the events that centre around ‘Monthly Expat Meet Up’ it’s the special interest events that have been more meaningful. For example, the Writing Meetups hosted in Zagreb and Berlin, the Degrowth conference in Sweden and the beach clean-up event I found here in Estonia. All of these have facilitated inspiring conversations and importantly follow-up.

Another lesson about community, the more you put in the more you get out. In the digital community realm, I volunteered to host weekly co-working sessions and have been doing it for 5+ months now. It anchors my week and it’s helped foster nourishing relationships. And IRL, it’s about turning up and showing up. There’s always reasons not to go to something, an episode of something you could catch up on. But sticking to your yes’s, especially early on in a new community building will be crucial and fruitful.

I now know I need community and that I can bring value to a relevant community that I actively participate in.

2. Apply curiosity everywhere and nurture it

Being curious is probably a central tenet to all long-term travellers. It’s the ignition that gets us on that plane, train or bus. Applying that same level of curiosity to other facets of life has been equally rewarding. I’ve been asking more people, more questions, making a habit to strike up conversations with taxi drivers for example. It keeps me learning new things, trying new things. Helps me check my privilege and challenge the status quo.

Curiosity helps me stay open-minded. It’s not easy though. As someone who traditionally likes to think they know better than everyone else, I have to constantly check my split-second judgements. Or when I meet someone new and I don’t feel like we’ve hit it off immediately, or they’re not ‘my type’, I now try and think, ‘What can I learn from this person?‘ Be interested, not interesting. It encourages me to be less judgemental; ‘Is it absolutely definitive s/he’s a waste of space (!) or do they have a lot of stuff going on and maybe I’m not looking at it from a wider perspective?‘ It also has me challenging my echo-chamber and realising that it’s imperative I proactively reach out to people different from me.

Channeling that curiosity inwards means I we can stay more mindful and it helps challenge those ingrained scripts. For example, ‘Oh I’ve just spilled coffee over my notebook, I’m such an idiot.’, cue the curious voice; ‘Why does spilling coffee mean you’re an idiot? Aren’t many human beings fallible of spilling coffee? Are they all idiots too? Would you call them an idiot to their face?‘ It means I query my knee-jerk emotional reactions to things, and see what’s lurking under the surface. For example, ‘Am I really mad at him for not getting my point? Or am I frustrated that my earlier call with another client didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and now I’m unleashing it, because I can.’

Travelling slowly can often force introspection. This form of curiosity by its very nature is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, sometimes dredging up painful thoughts/feelings and it might mean you ask for professional help. But that’s ok. Curiosity takes courage.

Constant curiosity can be draining though and there will be times we need to just sit still, rest and take it all in. Understanding the cyclical nature, when we have more energy and when we need more rest, can help keep your curiosity on track and sustainable.

For those of you curious (!) to know more, much of these thoughts, ideas and practices have been fostered by reading Brene Brown and learning more about active listening.

3. Treasure your time

Travelling and working remotely brings the concept of time to the forefront. You have two months in this country, 15 hours to bill to your client, 10 minutes until your next call. We are never far away from a conversation related to time, and often how we don’t have enough of it. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness that busyness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and not something we should aim for. But the idea that time is money is still so pervasive.

What I have learnt is that what you get paid to do will not necessarily be the most impactful thing you do. But making a difference is one of my core values, so I had to rethink things. I’ve not been chasing the money for a while now but this year saw me actively shifting how I think about paid work. I am fortunate enough to be paid for some really interesting projects but I don’t want to be behind a laptop 24/7. There is a term I stumbled across this summer; ‘downshifting’. As we move towards a world that no longer prioritises work for the sake of work, and more holistic views of success, downshifting is the active step to work less, through job sharing or reducing your hours.

This shift then frees up quality time, not just the odd hour at the end of a long day or the odd free weekend. It’s time when you can be at your best, regularly, to apply yourself in an impactful way. The four-day work week campaign highlights the many benefits as an individual and at a societal level from this shift.

And outside of the realm of work, bestowing your time (and your attention) is one of the best gifts you can give to someone. I’ve shifted from trying to see as many friends as possible to aiming for more meaningful one-on-one visits when I’m back home. Opting for quality over quantity.

Finally of course, make time for yourself. Time when your resting bitch face can set unguarded, time to watch that hygge Harry Potter re-run, time to read that book, write that blog post, take that walk. Or time to switch off and restore.

I’m glad I made time to get these ideas down.
Treasure your time – it is your most precious finite commodity and often we have more agency over it than we realise.

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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