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The Surprising Power of Remote Work: Sam Kern (Transcript)

Sam Kern at TEDxHieronymusPark

Full text of freelancer Sam Kern’s talk: The Surprising Power of Remote Work at TEDxHieronymusPark event.

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Sam Kern – Freelance software developer

A year ago I was recording conversations for a podcast episode on the topic of ‘How To Spend Your Twenties?’

And I posed this question to someone that I deeply admire. He’s a Professor at Montana State University named Dr. Thomas Donovan. This is what he told me.

“I think you should spend your twenties like you spend the rest of your life – Being curious! All your decades should be filled with curiosity!”

And it’s wonderful advice, right.

But here’s the thing. As we get older our ability to act on our curiosity seems to diminish. As children we were encouraged to follow our curiosity. We’re given the space to explore and to pursue the things that interest us. But then we become an adult.

This is me, a college graduate. On the outside – looking quite confident about the whole thing. But on the inside I was feeling more lost than I’ve ever felt in my life. I just completed a four-year computer science degree and I had landed a lucrative job as a software engineer.

But I felt stuck. And that’s because software engineering was not my passion.

There’s a poem by Mary Oliver that ends:

‘Tell me what is it you plan to do with this one, wild and precious life?’

And this is the question that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I knew that there had to be something else out there for me. I just didn’t know what it was yet.

So the summer after graduation something happened that totally changed my life trajectory. A friend invited me on a three-week trip to Vietnam. And I found Vietnam intoxicating — cities swarming with motorbikes, winding mountain roads, through dense jungle – incredible food that cost you just five dollars! And it was foreign and fascinating.

But something else happened. I started meeting foreigners who were living in Vietnam long term. Some of them were there to teach English, but some of them were digital nomads – people who work online and are able to travel and live anywhere.

And so after that trip, my friend flew home to start his career and I decided to stay.

I had some savings, a laptop and I knew how to code. I figured I was going to become a digital nomad!

So the first thing I do is I go to Chiang Mai, Thailand – which is this digital nomad hotspot. And I create an account on ‘Upwork’ – a job site for freelancers. Within two weeks, I was able to land my first gig with a US-based client building a mobile app.

I was working just 15 hours a week, making $30 an hour, so about $1400 after taxes! This was plenty of money in a place like Thailand, where you can live comfortably on a thousand dollars a month or less!

And so this new part-time remote job – it gave me a level of freedom that I have never experienced. For the first time in my life I could travel and explore without a deadline. I could go anywhere and do almost anything. And that’s what I did!

I traveled around northern Thailand on a motorcycle. I did Vipassana meditation at a forest monastery. And I got scuba certified on an island and I actually worked 8 hours on the ship on the way there using cellular data and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

And around the same time, I had this idea to start a podcast about lifestyles and career paths that break from the American norm. I wanted to expand my own awareness of life possibilities and then share them with the world.

And so I began interviewing people living in radically different ways.

  • I interviewed a 24 year old woman who was cycling from Thailand to Spain, 15,000 miles over the course of a year and a half.
  • I sat down with a 21 year old German man who had left his upper-class family to become a Buddhist monk.

And in one of the more strange experiences of my life, I spent a week on a tiny island off the coast of Thailand with this group of people building a network of eco-villages around the world. They described it as a place for visionaries and changemakers to rewrite the blueprints of humanity. It was a weird week.

Now it wasn’t all glamorous. Sometimes I felt really lonely. My equipment broke. I got caught in a lot of rainstorms on my motorcycle, but overall I was on an adventure and I felt alive.

And something else happened. I discovered a new passion: podcasting. I realized that I loved talking to people and sharing their stories. The author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about – How if you faithfully follow your curiosity it just might lead you to your passion. And this is exactly what happened with me.

Now we all have things that we’re curious about…

  • Places that we’ve always wanted to go,
  • Side projects that we can’t stop thinking,
  • Dreams of becoming an artist,
  • Writing a book, or
  • Starting a business

But I think that a lot of us feel like we’re not fully free to pursue those curiosities. We lack the time, the money, the connections or the courage to give them a go.

So I believe that we need to recreate space in our lives to be able to act on our curiosity. We need to give ourselves the room to breathe, so that we can discover what lights us up and then pursue it.

And I found that digital nomadism and the strategies and the philosophy behind is actually a way of doing this.

Now the digital nomad lifestyle of working remotely, traveling between countries, and living out of a suitcase – it’s not for everyone. And it has some obvious downsides and trade-offs.

But I think digital nomads are onto something that we all can learn from. Because at its core, the digital nomad movement is not just about travel, it’s about freedom. And for me at least, it’s the ability to act on your curiosity.

So now I want to show you some of the ways that digital nomads create freedom in their lives and explain how you might be able to do the same. It’s likely more possible than you think.

So a key component of digital nomadism is location independence and it’s powerful in a few ways. One is that if you want to live abroad, or you want to experience new culture, you can do that and that’s great.

But it also allows you to really, intentionally, choose your environment and your community. So if you hate the cold, you could spend the winter in Argentina. Or maybe you have family in rural Montana and you want to be near them, but there’s no jobs in your field. You could get a Seattle-based job and work remotely.

Location independence also allows you to live in a cheaper place, and taking a advantage of this thing called geoarbitrage. So geoarbitrage is basically the idea of earning money in a place that’s more expensive and then living and spending it in a place that’s cheaper.

So imagine making a San Francisco-based salary and living in a place like Thailand. Your money just goes so much farther.

Digital nomads also tend to be minimalist. So everything they own often fits in a backpack. And because they have less stuff, that means that they’re more mobile and they actually can reduce their costs. And once you can reduce your costs, you can work less.

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