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.

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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.
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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.

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