This week I had the pleasure to interview Rachel Coleman, an independent education consultant at collegeessayeditor.com and a location-independent business owner of 6+ years in college counseling and admissions consulting. Rachel received her B.A. from Stanford University, her College Counseling Certificate from UCLA, and is now a member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association)
What was your inspiration for living and working nomadically? What factors inspired you to leave the stationary lifestyle and start earning money remotely?
After a year of working in an office for my first job out of college, I decided that I wanted to think more creatively about how I wanted to live and structure my life, namely, to think out of the box about a work-life balance that would give me increased flexibility, self-determination, and independence. It was at this point in time that I also rediscovered my love for writing tutoring, and specifically my desire to empower students to be effective writers in the college application process. After completing the requisite education to prepare myself to become an independent education consultant (IEC) – I received my college counseling certification from UCLA – I made the choice to start my business 100% virtually.
I meet with all my students and families via Zoom or Skype, and therefore can offer my services to students living anywhere across the US or the world. Although I made this decision six years ago, the pandemic’s recent impact has made more and more people aware of just how much can be accomplished virtually, and the advantages of skipping long commutes in traffic, or setting up an alternative work schedule to the traditional nine to five commitment.
My inspiration for making this decision is likely similar to many digital nomads: 1) the world is a vast and exciting place to explore, and I didn’t want to wait until retirement to start immersing myself in new cultures and ideas and 2) I felt I could work with my students remotely and still develop close relationships with them, provide an excellent quality of service, and ultimately complete my job successfully in a location-independent manner.
What unexpected challenges and hurdles have you encountered so far as a digital nomad?
Although not that unexpected, finding reliable wifi is the perennial challenge of a digital nomad. Another hurdle that, as an independent college counselor, I must especially be cognizant of is the more complicated scheduling of virtual appointments, particularly when in different time zones or when application deadlines are approaching.
Another challenge is that it’s more difficult to form work connections or a community as passively as others; in other words, digital nomads must actively take it on themselves to form such communities and seek out such connections. So, once again the success of the lifestyle relies on each individual’s own initiative and creativity in discovering the many unique options for community building that are available to digital nomads, be it expat groups, coworking spaces, innovation hubs, book exchanges and clubs, and more.
Do you have any personal anecdotes or stories about the hardships you’ve faced as a location independent worker? How did you overcome them?
As mentioned above, one of the possible “hardships” of working remotely is the absence of a work community, or office friendships, that can contribute to one’s sense of human connection. I am fortunate that I have a partner of 7+ years who travels with me, so I am never on my own, but it was an adjustment to realize that if I wanted a sustained community outside of my family and my partner, I needed to create it myself.
Like any self-starting business owner, I devised a strategy and implemented it. My strategy was three-pronged. First, I maintained my monthly book clubs with different friends from high school and college, wanting to make sure I didn’t neglect my friendships because I was traveling.
Secondly, I decided to get more involved in the local community where I was staying. I have always been a fan of “slow travel” – our trips to a new location are typically 3-6 months, so that we can immerse ourselves in a new language / culture / community. During these months, I try to not simply be a tourist, but also attend local events like lectures at the archeological society, or a city’s yearly wine festival.
Thirdly, wherever we are in the world, we join the local English-speaking expat community, which often hosts events like pub quizzes, book exchanges, or cultural tours, and it is here that I tend to make wonderful friends. Perhaps my “office friendships” are not quite as stable as a location-dependent worker, but I no longer fear isolation or loneliness because there are so many ways to develop fruitful relationships in every country.
Has any aspect of the lifestyle and career been easier than expected? Is there anything that you thought would be difficult but, in reality, hasn’t been?
The financial cost of being a digital nomad has been unexpectedly easy. Before I started living this lifestyle, I had unconsciously thought that travel was a luxury, or that only the wealthy could afford to travel. I have never been so wrong. Making an American salary, while living in countries with a lower cost of living like say, Albania or Argentina, means that I am actually saving far more money than my peers who need to live in expensive cities to be close to their place of employment.
Separating income from location is almost a form of “geographic arbitrage” that allows digital nomads the amazing freedom to decide where they want to be – and how much they want to spend on their cost of living – that most workers in the world do not have.
I would also say that, due to certain constraints, like living with fewer possessions in general, the lifestyle also encourages me to be a minimalist and reflect on what really matters, which also plays a role in keeping expenses down.
What character traits would you say are the most important or essential for successful digital nomads?
Self-determination, independence, creativity, and the ability to think “outside-the-box” are essential traits for digital nomads. Part of what makes being a digital nomad so appealing is the freedom to choose how you spend your time. But with that freedom comes responsibility, namely the responsibility to use your time wisely and the drive to make things happen even when there isn’t a pre-existing structure to help you. Also important is the ability to find solutions that others wouldn’t think of, or may even frown on. For example, society may expect people to “settle down” when raising a family. But the digital nomad community is pioneering an entirely alternative child-rearing strategy. Having the backbone to go against the “norms” and “traditions” of society is an inherent part of the digital nomad lifestyle.
If you were starting over from scratch today, what would you do differently?
If anything, I would do it earlier, and prepare myself earlier so as to ease the transition phase. That includes not getting caught up in expenses and commitments that might make an exit strategy harder, and instead investing in tools that will make your life easier as a digital professional, such as researching international health insurance options, researching the cost of living and quality of life in different locations, learning new languages, and becoming proficient in various online and computer technologies.
What would you say to aspiring digital nomads looking to get started on a similar career path? Any words of wisdom or cautionary tales?
It’s important to control spending early on and live within your means (and even better if you’ve saved up for a “rainy day”) because that will give you the ability to make this path sustainable, and decrease the likelihood of being forced back to location-dependent work due to financial constraints.
It’s also important to remember that being a digital nomad is not a vacation. If you expect to become a digital nomad and stop working permanently, then you will certainly not succeed. Being a digital nomad is fundamentally separating your work from your location, nothing more, nothing less. There will still be stressful work days, and frustrating setbacks, whether you’re on a beach in Italy or in an office building in New York. So go into this new career path eyes wide open, acknowledging that you’re not eliminating your work, merely changing its venue.
Finally: trust yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking constructive criticism from friends and family, but you need to be able to doggedly pursue the life you want, regardless of the naysayers, of which there may be many since, after all, it’s a less conventional – though rapidly growing – lifestyle.