Ruby is a User Experience (UX) consultant & front-end developer pursuing a location-independent career and lifestyle. Visit her on the web at RubyZheng.com.
1. How and why did you choose to go nomadic?
Why did I choose to go nomadic? Well, our path is never shaped by one single experience but a multitude of them. And this is what happened to me. My decision was shaped by three things: age, spiritual thirst, and love.
Age: My midlife crisis when I turned 30
I was living what one might consider the ‘basic’ life before I dived into the nomadic journey. From the American dream standpoint, I was on the ‘right’ track. I got a master’s degree from a top college, worked in a few startups and landed in a big company. Yet I felt empty and perplexed. During my last job, on my commute to work, there were these beautiful flowers that bloomed in the Spring. I dreaded going into work and I felt only the flowers made the commute worthwhile. By the second Spring, as I saw them perch out from fresh dirt, I realized I was wasting my life doing something that did not make me happy. Am I going to live the rest of my life like this? I’ve lived 30 years of my life prescribed by the society, by my parents, and by my fears. I realized I needed to get off the track and start to find my own path.
Spiritual Thirst: My fascination with an ancient medicine
Being spiritual and believing in a higher power helped me through a lot of tough times. I was emotionally drained and depressed during graduate school and it lasted two years. During that time, I found solace in meditation and therapy. I listened and read to many Buddhist teachings. My favorite Buddhist text is A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva. My interest for spiritual growth went from Meditation to Buddhism to Yoga, Herbalism and then to Ayahuasca. I wanted to work with the medicine and go through a near death experience.
Love: The lack thereof
Finally, what is an honest story without the inevitable part about love? Well in my case, there wasn’t any. I’m an introvert so I don’t meet a lot of people. And when I do, it is always difficult to connect with them. Being single has its perks, though. Most of my friends are tied down to one place because of work, relationship, and family obligations. Since I was single, I realized I was in the perfect position to travel. And I feel traveling is the best way for me to meet and connect with people because I can take more risk and be out of my comfort zone.
The journey thus far
I became a nomad because I am driven by the desire to live my life in the 30s, spiritual growth, and love. In August 2015, I quit my job and went to Costa Rica to volunteer at an Ayahuasca retreat center.
In December 2015, I went to Chiang Mai to study Buddhism and Herbalism. Two of my favorite Buddhist teachers are Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Brahm from the Thai Forest Tradition, a lineage of the Theravada Buddhism. When I arrived in the city, I knew nothing of the digital nomad community. But after two months in Chiang Mai, I became part of it. I’ve never made so many friends and felt so much belonging in one place.
After Chiang Mai, I went to Asia and Europe. I then came back to Chiang Mai in June 2016. My plan is to stay here until the end of the year. Then I will do a 10 days Vipassana Meditation retreat in Myanmar. And who knows where I’ll be after that! There’s a constant fear of not making enough money to keep traveling. But I am trying to stay calm and go with the flow.
2. What was it like leaving your home country?
Leaving the US was a relief and empowering experience. I felt frustrated and numb with my life so I was ready for the change. I wasn’t worried about finance at the time because I had enough savings for a year.
My family was confused on what was happening and the confusion inhibited them from asking too many questions or showing concerns. I’ve always been independent and practical so no one knew how to start worrying about me. My mom was surprisingly receptive of my decision when I told her I wanted to travel. I think, at the time, my biggest fear was making my mom upset or seeing her disapproval.
3. What are your biggest struggles? Fears?
My biggest struggle is listening to my heart. I was living with a skewed preference for the mind. I think about things too much and get caught up with negative self-talks and fears. These days, I try to listen to my heart more. It is quiet and hesitant but I think with proper care, my heart will become stronger and determined.
My biggest fear is not spending enough time with my family, especially my grandma and mom. I love traveling but I also miss my family. Sometimes I feel sad because I cannot see them often. And I’m especially scared that I won’t have enough time with my grandma.
4. How are you funding your lifestyle and what projects are you working on?
I had $15k in savings when I started to travel. During the first 6 months, I traveled and didn’t work. I applied for a few jobs but did not get them. I tried Upwork, a general freelance platform; it was not the place to find decent clients for the types of work I do. Eventually, I joined Toptal, a more exclusive freelance platform, and was able to find better clients.
Currently, I am taking a break from big projects and working on two small projects for friends. I also plan to make my website more business-focused rather than personal-focused in the next few months. In addition, I want to do more art related stuff so I would like to find a way to make passive income through drawing or painting.
5. What is the estimated monthly cost of living for one of your favorite locations? What lifestyle does that afford?
I am currently staying 6 months in Chiang Mai, Thailand with a Multiple Entry Tourist Visa (METV). My rent is ~$230 (electricity, water, the internet, and cleaning included). I eat local Thai food and a meal is about $2 USD.
I don’t go to bars, drink alcohol or date Thai girls (it’s a joke =P) so initially I thought I would spend less than $800 per month. In reality, I’m actually spending an average of $1,200 per month. The reason is because I love to try new things. Since I’ve been in Thailand, I’ve done a Thai herbal workshop, practiced Muay Thai, gotten a Sak Yant tattoo, and taken a Thai Massage course. I also have a bad habit of buying random trinkets from the local markets.
6. What is your top tip for someone who aspires to earn money online and travel?
When you become a digital nomad, you are bound to hear success stories about drop shipping and Amazon FBA. I wanted to try to sell stuff online too. Yet after trying to start an online store with someone, I realized it was not for me. I don’t like the act of selling or marketing. It didn’t feel genuine for me and I lost passion for it.
I’ve met digital nomads who are successful at making money without doing drop shipping or Amazon FBA. Here are a few examples: coaches, copywriters, book publishers, teachers, music producers, developers, designers and much more. Many of these people make passive income by selling their own products and at the same time doing what they love.
I think it’s ok to start out earning money via drop shipping or Amazon FBA. And if you have a passion for business and marketing, then this is a fantastic path for you. But I hope people will look past the money and focus on exploring their passions.
Any final thoughts?
The Self-determination theory studies human motivation and growth. It breaks motivation into 2 categories: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is how we are perceived by others. Intrinsic motivation is how we perceive ourselves. Extrinsic motivation focuses on wealth, status and traditional way of living. Intrinsic motivation focuses on challenges and personal growth.
In computer programming, a framework is a starter kit. It is helpful when you begin a project but it is static and stale. Extrinsic motivation is like that of a framework. To build a rich and dynamic experience, we need to build on top of the framework. And this is where intrinsic motivation comes into play. It is our inherent human nature to seek out challenges and growth.
For those of us who travel and wander, we are pursuing our intrinsic motivation. It can be a scary experience but it is also vastly rewarding. And I think no matter what happens, whether you do it for a year or a decade, you’ll treasure this experience for a lifetime.