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Questioning Digital Nomadism and Other Millennial Myths
Approximate Read Time: 7 minutes
I’ve spent most of my adult life rushing frantically to fit more in. To some degree, this is just who I am. I want to write books, read books, start my own school, learn every skill, adopt every self-development habit, volunteer, travel, all the while being an enthusiastically present father and husband. There is simply so much more that I want to do than time in a day.
For the most part, this is not a terrible curse. I very much enjoy my projects and I’m fairly effective at getting a lot done in any given window. Still, there have been costs: frequent agitation at not meeting unrealistic time expectations; the frustration with not having time for many of the projects I’d like to tackle, and the tendency to rush through what otherwise might be simple, wonderful moments as I will myself towards future productivity.
Much of what drives my frenetic pace is the overwhelming sense that the dominant cultural paradigm is broken and that I want to fix it (what hubris). This delusional pursuit only worsened after my wife and I adopted our kids. As I’ve reflected on the past year, I’ve come to realize that my stubborn, hard-charging approach often wastes a lot of energy on futile ends while blinding me from a much more fruitful path. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time writing articles on the need for education reform and pushing for reforms in my school district. But regardless of how good my arguments are, district administrators always find a reason to stick to the status quo. Politicians will always prefer what is convenient and safe to what is necessary and bold. By pushing so hard to force my will, I’ve overlooked the immense influence that I have amongst the colleagues, parents, and students in my immediate environment. I’ve ignored the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, which states that we should “Think of the small as large and the few as many.” Since this revelation, I’ve begun a student group dedicated to exploring the life well lived. I’ve been blown away by the impact it’s produced and the opportunities it has opened.
I have a tendency to get swept away by my headlong quest for self-improvement and greater productivity, only to find that I’ve overlooked the most essential part of living well: being invested in your community and deeply connected to the people around you.
At work, my office and training facility are separate from the rest of the school. I rarely have to enter the main building and when I do, I always get stuck having conversations with colleagues and students. “Get stuck”... That is how I saw it: an inconvenience pulling me away from my window for productivity. A completely transactional view of life: time for output.
Look around you at the TV shows, movies, and actual experiences in your work life. In a work culture, there tends to be a lot of camaraderie amongst workers. They spend time together, laugh together, and are typically friends. Then there are the bosses and other really successful people—those who have climbed the ladder. They have more power, more money, and big spacious offices all to themselves, but far fewer friends. This is the archetype of success we are constantly being moved towards. Strive and strive until you are in the big office, alone.
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t ever care about moving up the career ranks or working hard on a project. To make the impact I want to make will require bouts of beautiful deep work and for my influence to grow in some form or fashion. But it is worth reflecting on the ideal of success most of us have been sold. No sane person above the poverty line would choose a bit more money over better friendships. Furthermore, I’ve seen over and over that the best leaders reject the model of isolation and, instead, pour themselves into the people around them.
Because of our modern technology, this model of isolation is not only a threat for hyper-ambitious Type-A’s. Modern tech democratizes our access to isolation. It is easier than ever to file into your cubicle (or, worse yet, your home office) and mindlessly drift between meaningless work, social media scrolls, outrage-inducing news, comment threads, DoorDash menus, and Netflix shows, while never investing in the community around you.
Perhaps the greatest cause of meaninglessness today is the global mindset that has taken over popular culture. We’ve tried to flatten out culture so that each town looks like the next and it is easy to install yourself in another location with minimal transition pains. Rather than pour into self-government and local politics, we obsess on national and international. Rather than dive into local gyms or churches, we stream Beachbody workouts and advocate for causes on the internet. When we aren’t happy, it is easy to blame the state of the world or to presume what we need is a promotion, a vacation, a new car, a new house, or a new town, but, with few exceptions, this is likely not the solution. What we need is a return to community and to the real.
Try this with me. Pause for a second and answer the following questions:
In what experiences do you feel most alive? Where and at what times are you most happy? When do you feel driven by purpose?
I’m guessing that reading Twitter and working late didn’t make your list. For me, almost everything that came to mind involved other people, reading books, practicing skills, or time in nature. A quick list:
Board games, card games, etc.
Sports, outdoor games, paintball, trampoline parks, etc.
The rare, wonderful date night with my bride
Quiet time in nature
Loud time in nature (with music, games, etc.)
Exercise or hikes with friends
Teaching and/or discussing great ideas
A campfire with good friends
At the top of my list is the combination of all of these: evenings spent around the fire talking about ideas with good friends, good music, good food, good games, and, sometimes, a glass of bourbon and a cigar. None of these require me to be on vacation or spend much money. They are infinitely available and were once completely typical. So why is this type of connection and time with friends no longer the default? Why aren’t we hosting weekly game nights, reading groups, and dinners? Why aren’t we making the choices that are more likely to spur deep relationships?
Those were rhetorical questions for your own introspection, but the macro answer is because of technology. Cars have spread us out and facilitated more frequent moves. Norms of increased television consumption have moved families to spend their leisure time in a more passive and isolated manner, and diminished community values in favor of the global, materialist, morally relativistic ethos. As I wrote in Setting the Bar, “Communities are no longer the vehicles where culture spreads and evolves so much as they are the playing field where consumerist forces manifest.” The rise of the smartphone and the ability to work from home have only exacerbated these trends.
Today, much of my generation has become enamored by the idea that they should be able to work from home, or better yet, become a digital nomad, tied to no one, no place, and no constraints over when and how they use their time. But, of course, there could be nothing worse for mental health and the cultivation of a meaningful, connected life.
As Oliver Burkeman points out in his book, Four Thousand Weeks:
... “digital nomad” is a misnomer—and an instructive one. Traditional nomads aren’t solitary wanderers who just happen to lack laptops; they’re intensely group-focused people who, if anything, have less personal freedom than members of settled tribes, since their survival depends on their working together successfully. And in their more candid moments, digital nomads will admit that the chief problem with their lifestyle is the acute loneliness.
“Last year, I visited 17 countries; this year, I will visit 10,” the author Mark Manson wrote, back when he was still a nomad himself. “Last year, I saw the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in the span of three months . . . But I did all this alone.” A fellow wanderer, Manson learned, “burst into tears in a small suburb in Japan watching families ride their bikes together in a park,” as it dawned on him that his supposed freedom—his theoretical ability to do whatever he wanted, whenever he chose—had put such ordinary pleasures beyond reach…
The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root. For the rest of us, likewise, more freedom to choose when and where you work makes it harder to forge connections through your job, as well as less likely you’ll be free to socialize when your friends are.
I don’t mean to condemn the desire to see the world, question norms, or be free from “meaningless” work. There is a lot of perspective that can come from a period of travel. But the digital nomad movement, like so many other commitment-free lifestyles sold to us in modernity, is not all it is cracked up to be—at least not as a long-term choice. As I’ve seen with marriage and parenthood, most of the greatest joys are only possible with commitment and sacrifice. You sacrifice a degree of freedom for something more important and that creates the opportunity for deeper meaning.
The Rise of the New Stoics
It would appear that technology will continue to move people towards greater flexibility and alienation, but, as was the case after the second industrial revolution, the confluence of these unnatural extremes also seems to be evoking a counter-movement. A growing number are seeking wisdom again while questioning the dogmas of progress. They’re reading books rather than consuming clickbait news. They are deleting social media and subscribing to podcasts or newsletters that focus on cultivating virtue. They’re ditching Tinder, scorning the in-vogue “monogamy isn’t natural” trope, and committing to marriage in a way that their parents often hadn’t. In short, they are looking to bring themselves into harmony with the world rather than to bend the world to their desires.
The writer Michael Warren Davis has called this movement the rise of the “New Stoics”. It is a return to the Greek ideal—the pursuit of excellence—of pursuing what is true, beautiful, and good. It is a second transcendentalist movement. Upon reflection, IHD is certainly evidence of the New Stoicism movement.
As encouraging as all of this is, too much of this counter-movement is happening in the digital space. To make a real impact, we need more of these people (which probably includes you and me) to begin pouring into their own community again. I love Thoreau and Emerson, but I prefer Theodore Roosevelt and the knights of the round table. Rather than retreat within themselves, the latter cultivated virtues so that they could live (and serve) more fully. They became larger than life by first embracing the community around them and then breathing their ethos into that community.
The trouble with New Stoics (as could also be said of us at IHD) is that we tend to read our books, optimize our habits, and strive to live by our code, but most of this is confined to our individual lives. Most of our social life is then lived in an entirely different world where we may practice our sacred virtues, but speak about them as if they are no more than a hobby because… who is going to get what we’re doing anyway, right? Even if we do a bi-annual extended fast, we tend to be sheepish or even slightly embarrassed to mention it. Even if we do a weekly intermittent fast, we could only explain it to others by referring to its benefits on health or physique. We certainly wouldn’t be so bold as to bluntly state that we are training ourselves to not be slaves to every emotion; or that prolonged hunger was an intensely human experience, one that was inescapable for most people throughout history and which every religion has prescribed, and, as such, we find occasional fasting to be an integral method for training ourselves to live well. Who the hell would talk like that?
For generations raised to “be cool,” to just “do you,” and to never be “extra,” owning your convictions feels intensely vulnerable. And so the rise of the New Stoics tends to be a movement of isolated individuals, striving to uphold a personal code that they would only mention in the most tepid way. It is an ethical movement practiced almost entirely online or in a confined, private manner. There are no Stoic Churches and no rituals synchronized in accordance with the calendar. This leaves our necessary movement confined and limited, and it leaves us isolated and longing for deeper fellowship.
Much of the success of Christianity is due to its focus on winning converts and embedding itself into the social life of each community. Over the past few generations, the mainstream Christian religion has focused far less on virtue while far more on the perks of blind faith. This has transformed the predominant religion of the United States into what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For a majority of young believers today, church has become more about motivating messages, positive vibes, and not having to worry about death than with any serious inquiry into how to live a good life. Still, most churches do a wonderful job facilitating fellowship and a sense of community support. New Stoics would do well to learn from this model and, perhaps, even to join these communities. Churches are, after all, still the most central force for promoting values and community connection in America today.
The movement to community will look different for different people and places, as the bridge into community will depend on the community. You might start a weekly men’s or women’s reading group where you meet to discuss a book you’re reading. It may be a morning workout group or adult sports league (F3 seems to be a model of this). And it might be that you embrace a church tradition so you can embed yourself in a community that is already organized around the pursuit of fellowship and values.
Rather than being stubborn and frustrated with the world, we should be practical, working with it to create what is needed. And what is needed, now more than ever, is a deep investment into the people we live amongst. The rise of the New Stoics is a wonderful thing, but it will be infinitely more wonderful if we integrate it into our world. In the age of alienation and temptation, social support and positive peer pressure have never been more necessary.