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

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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!

[read more]

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.

And I think this is super important. Because after a 40-hour workweek plus time for exercise and a social life, there’s just not a lot of extra time in a week to be productive. And if you work part-time, you now have an extra twenty to thirty hours a week that you can allocate to anything.

So if you can figure this out, you can give yourself the ability to do some really incredible things.

So I want you to imagine for a second…

  • What would you do if you could be anywhere in the world and you only had 20 hours of work you had to do each week?
  • How might you reallocate that time?
  • What unfulfilled curiosity or passionate of yours might you pursue?

If you’re feeling lost like I was or simply want to explore, you could do that. I don’t know!

  • Form a band and tour around New Zealand in a van, producing pop-up concerts in people’s backyards!
  • Or you could live in a Japanese mountain village!
  • Or you could use the site work away to find volunteer opportunities around the globe in exchange for free food and lodging!

Or maybe you’d learn a new skill, maybe you’d learn photography, or study machine learning. Or perhaps you pursue a creative passion. You’d start writing that book you’ve always been thinking about, or you’d start that podcast. I hear that everyone has a podcast now.

Or maybe you launch a side hustle, or try out that startup idea, or perhaps you do a life experiment.

So this is how this works. If you’re curious about a life path or a career path, don’t just fantasize about it… Go try it. And with location independence and a part time job, it makes it really easy to do this. So let me show you what I mean.

Last year I was at a conference and I meet this man named Pablo. And he runs this company and they produce these multi-sensory experiential dinners, where he brings people together around world-class food with the intention of helping people connect at a deeper level.

And so this idea of a live experience design — it’s something that I’ve been really interested in for a long time. And so I said, ‘Pablo! I can work with you for free. You don’t have to pay me, because I already have a part-time remote job!’ And worst case we spent a few weeks together in San Diego and if it’s not the right fit I’ll just keep doing my Digital Nomad thing.

And he said ‘Yes!’

And so two months later I show up to San Diego and I begin working with Pablo and his team. And it was amazing! I got to work with their team to design and produce these events. I got to work in the kitchen with their head chef.

And actually after a few months it turned into a job offer, which I didn’t end up taking – because I wanted to continue living abroad. But through this experience, I gained some incredible skills – related to experienced design, community building, and food. And I also gained an incredible mentor and a friend!

So you see with part-time remote work, it actually reduces the friction to be able to try out an entire new career path. With the same strategy you could theoretically work with anyone anywhere in the world.

So at this point you’re probably thinking – ‘Okay, this seems cool, but how would I actually begin working online?’

Well, the good news is that remote work is quickly becoming a new norm. So it’s estimated that within the next five years 70% of Americans will be working remotely, at least five days a month. And what this means is a greater cultural acceptance of remote work, better technology to facilitate it, and more fully remote jobs.

But what if you want to get started working remotely right now? Well! The first thing to do would be to get the right skills. Something that you can do remotely and is in demand.

So some of the professions are more obvious – software developers, digital marketers, designers, writers that sort of thing. But if your job requires you to crack open a laptop, there’s a good chance that it could be done remotely.

I know location independent researchers, magazine publishers and even filmmakers! And with the rise of video calling and online learning platforms, there’s now professors, therapists and even yoga teachers that run their entire business online.

So the next step would be to find remote work, and there’s a few ways to do this.

One is to get a remote job. More and more companies are starting to embrace remote work. Because they’re realizing that it makes their employees happier and more productive. And it lowers their operating expenses, because they don’t have to pay for a central office.

So you can reach out to these types of companies directly. You can look on remote job sites like these or you can also leverage Facebook groups and find work that way.

Now another option is freelancing. And this is the way that I started. Freelancing can be great, because you’re your own boss, you get to choose your hours and choose your clients. But it can also be really isolating and oftentimes there’s no guarantee of a steady paycheck.

Now, I assume a lot of you already have jobs. So another option would be to keep your job, but renegotiate the terms. This is Britney – she was a lawyer in the US and this is how she started working remotely.

“So a lot of the law firms that I worked for are completely paper-based. So you had a file and you had to like print everything put in the file. I would help the whole law firm, go paperless, make myself indispensable and then say, ‘Hey, I’m moving to Costa Rica and do you still want me to work for you?’ And they were like ‘Yes, so I guess we’ve never had anyone work remotely, but we’ll try that. Because we don’t know what to do without you!’”

Bold, I know, but it’s a powerful strategy that even you could utilize.

So another way to begin working remotely online is to actually teach English. And this kind of blew my mind. So China has the largest middle class in the history of the world and they want their children to learn English. And this has given rise to an entire industry of online English teaching platforms.

So what this means is that if you’re a native English speaker, which most of you are, you can create an account on one of these sites and begin teaching English – and make twelve to thirty dollars an hour. You can choose your schedule and you can do it from anywhere. And this is something a lot of my friends in Shanghai are doing. Because it’s a great way to cover your expenses while you’re figuring out what else you want to be doing online.

So if any of these possibilities seem exciting to you, I encourage you to just start somewhere. And maybe that means especially if you’re starting out your career, maybe get a full-time job, develop some remote skills and then transition to part-time remote work when you have more expertise and experience that you can leverage.

Convince your employer to let you work from home several days a week and then blow them away with your productivity. Downsize your house or go without a car to reduce expenses and learn how to live with less!

Work 30 hours a week, instead of 40! And then spend the extra 10 hours learning a new digital skill. Maybe pick up some freelance writing gigs, alongside your day job. Or rent out your apartment on Airbnb for a month. And go on a trip to Bali or another digital nomad hotspot.

If you want to live life differently, take the first small step forward. Because with each step your awareness of the possibilities will expand. And you’ll meet other people who are thinking the same way and can help you along your journey.

I want to live in a world where everyone is free to spend time acting on their curiosity. At an individual level, this allows us to discover our passions, the things that make us feel most alive and then act on them.

And at a societal level, this creates a better world, because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.

Thank you.

Download This Transcript as PDF here: The Surprising Power of Remote Work_ Sam Kern (Transcript)

Resources for Further Reading: 

The Minimalists: The Art of Letting Go at TEDxFargo 2016 (Full Transcript)

A Rich Life With Less Stuff by The Minimalists (Full Transcript)

Go Ahead, Tell Your Boss You Are Working From Home: Nicholas Bloom (Transcript)

How to Make Work-Life Balance Work: Nigel Marsh (Transcript)


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