Fewer Better Things No. 76

Return of the Digital Nomad

It’s that time of the year here when the magical sunsets are returning. I made this photo last year in November a few minutes after sunset. Photo: Per Håkansson.

My wanderlust is returning. It’s been happening gradually over the past few weeks as I’ve been reflecting on what’s next. After having spent the past 18 months on setting up the surf shack, focusing on designing a new live-work-learn infrastructure, improving my physical strength and wellbeing, and, of course, waiting for the vaccine to rollout world wide, and the pandemic being somewhat “under control”, I feel ready.

If there is one thing that my future 80-year old self would look back at and define as the most common red thread during my life it’s traveling. Since I can remember, my most prolific future dream has always been about exploring the world and living in far away places. And this is way before the Internet became publicly known and daily used, when work was still very physical and we were all tethered to one single place.

The other thing that has followed me throughout my life is the desire to understand and live the future today. This goes all the way back to a few books I read about the future in my late teens and twenties: The Third Wave by Alvin Toeffler (1980), Megatrends by John Naisbitt (1982), and Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte (1995).

I learned that the future would bring more personal freedom and I decided that I was going to use these new insight to design a very interesting and adventurous global life. I was never really clear on exactly what I was going to work with but I knew that it would evolve over time, just as the books said, and all over the world. And I knew that I wanted to live a nomadic and intellectual life, filled with constant learnings and growth, and with a hideaway somewhere in nature for rest and reflection.

During my five nomadic years (2014-2019), I explored this lifestyle right to the edge and crossed over a few times. To paraphrase one of my literary heroes, Hunter S. Thompson: there is no other way to know the edge than to cross it. And that I have in living and working from anywhere, before it became the latest buzzword on LinkedIn.

Surprisingly, what I recently thought was a new book was just the beginning of a new chapter. Now knowing where the edge is roaming, and of course, being very aware of the status quo, I’m planning a new type of galactic existence. It’s the combination of the best of the nomadic and settled worlds: residing in a surf shack by the beach but also traveling the world. The idea is to enjoy both but in a new and better way.

Since most people are aware of the pros and cons of the settled lifestyle I’ll let the learnings from my nomadic years do the talking. But first let me explain how I traveled during these years. I stored all my stuff with a concierge service based in San Francisco, traveled the world for work and pleasure non-stop, and returned to San Francisco every two weeks, staying in Airbnbs or hotels, to be with my kids.

This is, of course, not the digital nomad that we know through the media, setting up camp in Chiang Mai and other low-cost backpacker destinations, working as social media whateves, and trying to figure out what to become when growing up. No Siree, this was a well-designed, hands-on and must-do research experiment in the future of working, living, and learning from anywhere.

During every two-week period I could be snowboarding in Switzerland, giving talks in Barcelona, learning Arabic in Lebanon, and facilitating workshops in Singapore. Two weeks, just think about it. How much do you “squeeze” in during a normal two week period? It was made possible by “living in the cloud” as per my TEDx talk from 2016.

It was an idea I had picked up from the book Being Digital where Nicholas Negroponte talks about the shift from atoms to bits, the latter being virtual and weightless, allowing for instant global movement. That idea was so profound and fascinating to me that I had to explore it, I had to live it on my own terms. The only physical part during those years was to move myself across the world as new work projects were suggested via different communication tools and networks.

But what I underestimated with constantly traveling the world was the following: it’s hard to maintain and deepen healthy relationships, and it can do a number on your physical and mental health. Yes, in this quest for living the future I sacrificed one kind of personal well-being for another and that brings us back to present time and one of the reasons why I’ve been living here since Valentine’s Day 2020.

So when looking towards the future I plan to bring out the best of the nomadic and settled lifestyles, designing an untested hybrid that I believe could work well.

  1. Two-week trips but not all the time. What worked really well in the past was to plan and travel for two weeks. Pretty much anywhere on earth can be experienced during this time period. But what I would do differently is to spend time in-between my travels in the shack, probably a month or six weeks before the next trip to rest, reflect, and get work done.

  2. One trip, one destination. It sure was fun to live the old jet-setting dream on a budget, one day being in Paris and the other in Tokyo, but it wasn’t good for my health. Regular sleep, lots of water, a healthy diet, staying in shape, and close friendships are fundamental to human well-being and really hard to sustain with non-stop traveling. This time around I would focus on one destination and do local day trips. Better for both myself and the planet.

  3. Smarter planning. Since I was traveling non-stop in the past I had to do all travel research on the fly on flights and in airports, often last-minute. It’s possible but exhausting. This time, with only one destination to focus on and plenty time in-between trips I can do more thorough research and design a more effective and mindful schedule for my trips.

  4. Packing for single destination and activity. In the past I had everything I deemed necessary to survive anywhere packed in a 30-liter duffel bag. This meant that I brought some stuff that I never used as I didn’t always know where I needed to be the following few days or weeks. This time I’ll replace those items with stuff only designed for the planned destination and activity.

  5. Traveling slower. In my old life I was constantly on the move and became somewhat addicted to always moving fast and last-minute. I arrived at the airport one-hour before departure, swung by the lounge for a quick bite and a glass of red or two, and at arrival I was in an Uber within thirty minutes followed by a meeting an hour later. It was a constant go-go-go with only the occasional weekend to really rest and slow down. Today I will take it easy-peasy and create plenty of time to breathe and smell the proverbial flowers.

In addition to the above, there are two other things on my mind: technology and the pandemic. Of course, I’d like to keep pushing the envelope when using emerging technologies and continue my experiments in traveling with the latest. In 1995 I traveled all over Europe with a colleague, working remotely, using only a heavy laptop and a portable wired modem; in 2007 I did the same with the iPhone; and in 2010 with the iPad. So now it’s time for the Apple Watch and voice as the main interface.

The pandemic is still an unknown as the virus will keep mutating into new strains until we can get it somewhat under control world wide. I personally believe that it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future but also that there are ways to travel – once vaccinated – to minimize the risk of catching and spreading this disease. My plan is to pick destinations with a high percentage of people vaccinated, well-designed entry and exit protocols, a decreasing rate of infections, and lots of outdoor opportunities.

So whereto next? Well, I’m currently planning to travel to Tahiti for the winter holidays as my first trip anywhere out-of-state in two-years. It’s been decades since I planned a trip this far ahead and that’s quite exciting. It’s a quick nonstop flight (only 8 hours), barely any time difference (2 hours), lots of ocean activities, and being a passionate francophile, thalassophile, and gastronome, the really perfect destination.

Most importantly, the trip is giving me something really fun to look forward to and a renewed trust in a very exciting future filled with new possibilities. I believe that it’s when we can trust ourselves, others, and the future that we also can feel the most alive. Death is certain and will inevitably arrive some day but until then I’ll try to live my life to the fullest on my own terms to experience as much as I can of this beautiful planet and it’s incredible people. Every day counts if I make it count and by creating the right personal mix of settled and nomadic I hope to make it count even more.

PS. I’m starting to write premium posts for those of you that would like more. This time it’s my carefully curated packing list for my planned holiday trip to Tahiti, French Polynesia. My intention is to show how to pack, why, and what to bring to travel light yet very comfortably.

Recommendations:

Global Virus Tracking: Reuters have put together a really interesting and useful graphical global virus tracker to show what’s going on where in the world. It’s one of the research tools I’m using to identify where it’s safe and healthy to travel.

Solar Battery Pack: A durable, light-weight, and water-resistant extra battery pack is very useful when traveling. I always bring mine with me on all trips to charge my devices on-the-go during the day and the battery pack over night.

Nomad Cables: When any of my three Apple devices outlast its original cable, I replace it with Nomad’s sturdy and travel proof kevlar cables. The Universal USB-A cable is my favorite with Micro-USB, USB-C, and lightning connectors.

Travel Backpack: I love the Patagonia Planing Roll Top 35-liter Dry/Surf Pack (currently 30% off). It’s very affordable, sturdy, and without all the unnecessary bells and whistles. It’s just a big dry bag with one large outside mesh pocket and one small inside pocket for keys, wallet, and phone. Packs easily and fits a whole lot.

Unlimited Data: I’m really happy with my Visible cell phone plan for $40 per month with unlimited text and data, Apple Watch support, and unlimited personal hotspot – perfect when traveling. Get the first month for $5 when you sign up via this link.

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Happy travels

Per Håkansson

Encinitas, California

Per is a former Silicon Valley techie turned digital lecturer, writer, photographer, and surfer. When not living in his surf shack by the beach he’s traveling the world for work and pleasure. His lifelong passion for experiencing the world first hand includes living in six countries, visiting 72 countries, and speaking three, almost four, languages fluently.