Experiment Report #2: Learning The Limits of Nomad Life

I’m currently in the midst of a 4-month life experiment designed to explore what it’s like to be a digital nomad. I love to travel! And even before I retired, the virtual nature of my work enabled me to spend 6 months of the year on the road. Since I retired, I have been curious about experimenting a different amount, type, and style of traveling.

The Experiment: Remote Year

So I designed an experiment to answer following question: would I enjoy making travel a lifestyle (instead of a scheduled activity)?

The experiment was to spend 4 months traveling with a group of digital nomads on Remote Year. I believed that 4 months with a group of both aspiring and seasoned nomads would allow me to test the following 3 hypotheses:

  1. Traveling more than I currently do will increase my happiness.
  2. A different pace of traveling (a new country every month) will be more satisfying than our current pace (several months in the same place every year and a few short multi-country sprints).
  3. Traveling with other digital nomads will enhance my travel experience.

The first month was full of ups and downs! So once we moved from Split to Lisbon, I was ready to make some adjustments.

And I wasn’t the only one! During our stay in Lisbon, our “tramily” got smaller and fragmented. Specifically:

  • Another person left the group (we’ve lost a total of 10% of our group),
  • Approximately 25% of the group arranged for alternative housing in Lisbon, and
  • Couples and cliques formed within the community.

I imagine people leaving, improvising, coupling, and curating their connections are common in travel groups. As such, none of these things felt like a surprise to me.

A Few Adjustments…

Last month I learned several things about myself that required making adjustments. First and foremost, I need a significant amount of private, alone time to recharge. So I was one of the people who went off on my own for housing. Specifically, I chose to decline my assigned apartment (a 5-bedroom flat) and rent my own flat from AirBnB.

Yes, it was more expensive, but I ended up with a beautiful apartment in a quiet neighborhood. That one decision was a game-changer for me because living away from the group forced me to do things on my own (instead of relying on others to figure everything out). It also got me outside of the Remote Year bubble and allowed me to explore Lisbon at my own pace and on my own terms.

I also realized last month that I prefer quality over quantity of experiences. So I intentionally reduced the number of group activities I participated in each week. I did that so that I could fully enjoy each activity and have time to process my experiences. The previous month, I felt like I was running from one thing to another without reflecting along the way.

And finally, I had to face the fact that I’m just not fundamentally aligned with my group’s preferred activities. That’s the nicest way I can say that most of the group’s activities (and bonding) revolve around drinking copious amounts of alcohol. As a person who is choosing to live an Alcohol Free lifestyle, this is an ongoing and challenging point of disconnection.

That challenge required me to get far more pro-active about meeting Lisboans who share my interests. Specifically, people who love to read, write, cook, eat, create, and engage in high quality conversations. So I made my own nerdy agenda for the month and pursued it.

Frankly, that clarity, creativity, and connective energy is what being a nomad is all about! So in many ways when I stopped focusing on how I didn’t fit in with the other nomads in my travel group, I stepped into being my own style of traveler. Specifically, I asked myself:

  • what do I want to learn?
  • who do I want to connect with? and
  • how am I willing to stretch and grow in this amazing new city?

Answering these three questions gave me a direction for the month and made it easier to connect with people who have similar interests.

New Experiences

Making these adjustments worked like magic! They led me to so many amazing new and first-time experiences, including:

  • Using EatWith, MeetUp, and AirBnB Experiences as a way to meet local people and get off the tourist track
  • Facing my fear of heights while hiking in Arrabida
  • Learning how to buy and cook a whole octopus
  • Experiencing a “Drag Queen Cooking Class
  • Creating my own ‘Lisbon bookstore tour’
  • Kayaking to a private beach
  • Exploring the coast in Portuguese military jeeps (UMM)
  • Strolling through castles and gardens in Sintra
  • Descending a spiral staircase (aka the “Initiation Well”) to explore: who am I?, where have I been?, and where am I going? 
  • Discovering I love sardines!
  • Cooking and eating my way through Portuguese cuisine (Peixinhos da horta, Sopa da pedra, Bacalhau, Caracóis, and way too many Pastéis de nata)
  • Traveling 4,000 miles with a friend’s guitar
  • Discovering 4 great books at a used book shop (that I never would have bought online), and
  • Completing a second round of the 30 Day Alcohol Experiment!

The Most Important Lesson

Amidst all of these experiences, I connected with a wide range of digital nomads in Lisbon. And in those conversations, I observed a powerful pattern. Most of the nomads I spoke with were searching for something: a partner, a purpose, or a place to call home.

I also had numerous conversations with people who settled down in Lisbon after spending a period of time as digital nomads. Once they found what they were seeking, they decided to put down some roots in one place. Those former-nomads wanted to enjoy the depth of relationships, community, and sense of belonging that come from staying in one place.

The more conversations I had with digital nomads who were searching for the who, what, and where of their lives, the deeper the gratitude I felt for my “real” life at home in Detroit. Specifically:

  • the more I enjoyed Lisbon, the more I wanted to share it with my husband and friends
  • the more conversations I had about finding passion and purpose, the more thankful I was for a transition process and extraordinary coaching through my latest life transition
  • the more I move from city to city, the more I appreciate how much I love Detroit and my home in Midtown.

To be clear, my life isn’t perfect. But traveling has made me realize how much I love my husband, my “work” in the world, and the life we’ve created over the past 24 years of our marriage.

About Those Hypotheses…

At the end of my month in Lisbon, I had to fly home for a previously scheduled commitment. And as you can imagine, I was ecstatic to return home to Detroit for 5 days!

Because I was in a profound state of gratitude, I had an incredibly joyful visit. I ate at my favorite restaurants, baked cupcakes in my kitchen, slept in my own bed, and spent many hours in lengthy conversation with my husband. In short, I delighted in every little detail of my “normal” life.

That pitstop at home also marked the halfway point of my travel experiment. To be honest, I felt like I had all the data I needed to evaluate my hypotheses:

  • Traveling more had not increased my happiness.
  • Moving to a new country every month was not more satisfying than staying in one place for several months and returning to places where we have longstanding relationships and a sense of community.
  • Traveling with other nomads had not enhanced my travel experience. It has been interesting, but it made me miss the most important people and parts of my life at home.

I’m not going to lie, I was ready to throw in the towel, call this experiment complete, and stay home!

But instead, I got on a plane and returned to Lisbon after my husband reminded me that he would be joining me for the final few weeks of the program. I returned because I want to experience living in Valencia, learning Spanish, exploring Cape Town, and being open to whatever else the universe wants me to learn.

Even though I feel like I’ve answered my question about travel (I’m definitely not going to become a digital nomad), there’s still plenty of things to learn, people to meet, and incredible cities to experience on the remaining two months of my journey!

I look forward to what the next two months will bring and promise to share my reflections here. As always, I hope my transparency about the messy reality of life experiments, traveling, and the personal insights I’ve had along the way inspire you to design a few life experiments of your own.

Kerry Ann

p.s. – if you have any questions about Remote Year, the details of nomad life, living in Lisbon, or designing life experiments, post them below!

5 Replies to “Experiment Report #2: Learning The Limits of Nomad Life”

  1. I love that you structured this as an experiment with things to test and a clear timetable. I had heard about Remote Year, and my husband and I want to step up the travel, but will arrange it on our own. We have a month in Costa Rica coming up, and Portugal and Spain are on the radar for next year!

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