Ever wanted to work abroad? Here’s how to join the growing army of location independent ‘technomads’, who use the web to fund their travels.
8 years. 22 countries. 1 laptop and a polyglot.
We speak to Benny Lewis, eternal traveller and founder of Fluent in 3 Months, about the life of a Technomad.
1. What exactly is a ‘Technomad’ and how have you used technology to help you fund your on-going travels?
I didn’t come up with the word, but it suits me perfectly; it’s a technology-enabled nomad. I have been on the road for almost a decade, and most of the last years have only been possible because I work online. The Internet has simplified my travels and my ability to grow a social circle as I travel tremendously.
2. What made you go travelling in the first place and did you know you’d still be on the road almost 9 years later?
Taking a gap year in Ireland is pretty normal after studies. A lot of people feel their personal development needs to take priority over their career development, so take some time out for this. I went to Spain first, but enjoyed my gap year so much that I extended it, and continue to extend it almost a decade later!
While there are many issues with travelling long term, one thing kept me going all this time: getting to know the local culture and language. By learning the language quickly, I managed to make local friends who spoke no English.
Most travellers are limited to the university educated people only, (outside of Western Europe) if they want to make local friends. Learning the local language to fluency on several occasions meant that I could have a conversation with everyone.
The buzz I get from this and the incredibly unique experiences I have mean that this is very hard to get bored, and that’s why I’ve managed to keep travelling for so long!
3. You’ve had many jobs to pay your way whilst abroad; what was your first, your worst, and your best?
My first job was a Mathematics teaching assistant in upstate New York when I was turning 19. It was an all-American summer camp (specifically for talented children), and a fantastic first experience!
The best job I’ve had was at the reception of Rome’s oldest youth hostel. While the pay was miserable, I was living near the Vatican City walls and could see St. Peter’s Basilica from my bedroom – a view usually reserved only for those with much greater means than I had.
I welcomed people from all around the world and got to practise all of my languages. Being the go-to guy for all Rome questions and the only multilingual employee made me quite popular!
The worst job was one that was a necessary evil. I worked as an in-house translator, again in Italy. I had to commute for 4 hours every day by train to get there and back, pay was terrible, my boss was quite mean to me and when I finally had to quit, Italian bureaucracy meant that they wouldn’t let me leave for a month due to small-print on my contract!
It was the most stressed out I’ve ever been, but the training I got in that job lead to me being able to work as a freelance translator over the Internet for several years, so it was worth the sacrifice in the end!
4. Many English-only speakers are dissuaded from working in Europe because of the language barrier. Can anyone become a technomad? How easy is it to pick up work abroad without knowledge of the local lingo and what advice can you give?
One thing to get you started is simply to teach English! There is still great demand for English teachers, and knowing the local language is not necessary at all to join one of these schools. You can do a weekend English-teaching certificate from home, and that is all the qualification some places require, especially if you go to less touristic areas. Once I moved away from Paris to Toulouse in the south of France, I got a job teaching English almost immediately!
However, to become a fully-fledged technomad, you need a professional skill that can be done without having to be physically present. If you are a programmer, web designer, photo editor, writer, can give people lessons by Skype instead of in person, phone-based consultant etc., try to convince your boss to let you work away from the office, offering to let them reduce your salary in exchange. Or offer low rates as a freelancer.
This bargaining chip is useful because if you take your work abroad, you can go to a cheaper country such as Thailand, the Philippines, somewhere in South America etc. and that smaller wage will still be quite a generous one where you are.
Not everyone can do this, but many can if they put their thinking caps on! Some websites for finding work that is entirely online include elance and odesk. I’ve hired people myself on both sites to help me with programming and other tasks and know people who earn a full-time living from these sites. There are also many other websites to find clients to work with, depending on the work.
Also, living frugally and spending less is something many people learn on the road and start to see that they need way less money than their colleagues do back home. Travelling the world really is possible for the non-rich!
One person that inspired many people to start creating businesses that they run entirely digitally is Tim Ferriss who wrote about it in his book the Four Hour Workweek. I had already been travelling for some time before I came across his work, but many of my friends owe their ‘location independence’ to his advice.
5. Despite not displaying any aptitude for learning foreign languages at school, you’ve become fluent in 8 different tongues since you were 21! How did you do it and what advice do you have for others?
Yes, that’s right. At age 21 I was convinced that I’d never learn anything more than English and told myself I’m not naturally talented, I’m too old, I don’t have time etc. I had done very poorly in German, which is what I had studied in school.
All of these excuses disappeared when I simply forced myself to speak my target language. The rule is very simple: you must speak the language from day one. No excuses, no over-preparing for years – just learn a few words and phrases, then use them with a native, see what’s missing, study that and go back. My learning approach is communicative and is much more natural and social and practical.
I find constantly studying grammar is based on a perfectionist approach that tries to teach you everything, and fails by being too broad. When you learn specifically what you need to say (and be totally open to saying it wrong and making many mistakes), you will indeed communicate your idea, and get into the flow much quicker. When you have the flow, then improving on your language skills becomes much easier.
People are welcome to follow me on my blog as I explain some of those processes I apply many times over with new languages as I learn a new one every few months. I do this in the country, but my tips can be applied everywhere. I learned Portuguese to a very good level while still living in France for example.
6. How many countries have you visited, and where has been your three favourite, and three least favourite and why?
I know people who have passed 100 countries already – I’ve been travelling longer than many of them, but I do it much slower. Apart from flight transfers, and a few brief visits, I have spent several months in 22 countries. For me, quality is more important than quantity – I can say many things about those countries, including sharing experiences with friends I made there.
This doesn’t mean that I learned 22 languages, since several of these countries (for example Colombia, Argentina, Spain…) spoke the same language, but even in those cases I worked hard to learn different dialects and can switch between them now when the situation requires it!
My favourite country by far is Brazil. I find the people so warm and friendly and genuine and clever, and simply wiser about how life should be lived to the full. They have taught me a lot.
Next is the Philippines – once again the warmth I felt here was amazing. I was also glad to see how much they love to sing karaoke there as I’m a big karaoke fan!
My third would be Spain – it’s got the Latin charm I love in South America, and the same festive spirit that keeps you busy all weekend, but is easier to access cheaply within Europe. My favourite experience in Spain was hiking to the peak of Mount Teide in Tenerife.
I’m not so interested in listing my least favourite countries – any negative experiences I’ve had would have been my fault for not adapting correctly to the local culture! One thing I will say though is that while I love the French, I do quite dislike Parisians after a negative time and lonely nine months living there, but am slowly getting over that as I learn to get along with Parisians.
7. What are the three best things about working aboard and being location independent?
The adventure of discovering a way of life that is completely new and different to anything you’ve experienced before; the flexibility to live your life entirely by your rules, and finally the way it has opened me up to be more of an extrovert and to gain confidence in myself.
8. You’ve been living with no fixed address for eight years. What are the downsides to a technomadic lifestyle and do you ever miss any of the trappings of a permanent home and community?
Yes, the major problem is of course with making and maintaining relationships. On occasion, if I really like a girl she may presume that I have dozens of others waiting for me at various ports around the world, and this scepticism, which is not well deserved, has made it very difficult to even start serious romantic relationships.
Otherwise, you start to learn how important it is to be associated with one place. At first I resented my little part of the world I grew up in, but now I eagerly look forward to going home to spend time with my family. You get caught up in your own world a bit too much when you travel alone, and I’ve seen those who do it too much lose their ability to empathise with others and I hope this never happens to me.
I may continue travelling for several more years, but ultimately this is no way to live your entire life and I will settle down somewhere, even if I am to base myself there for 6-9 months a year and travel the rest of the time.
9. Have you met many other technomads, and if so, what do they do to pay their way?
Absolutely! Some of them, like me, run blogs and earn from those websites. For example, Nomadic Matt also gives budget and backpacker travel advice; Adam Baker at ManvsDebt travels while also trying to pay off huge student loans, explaining how; Steve Kamb at Nerd Fitness gives health and exercise advice on the road. A host of other people do things such as website coding, Skype-based consultation and so on.
Anything that you can theoretically earn entirely from a computer makes you eligible!
10. What lessons have you learnt from being on the road for so long and what tips do you have for other wannabe technomads?
My most popular post ever (currently at over 190,000 views in the two weeks since I wrote it) discusses the 29 life lessons I have learned in 8 years on the road. Understanding people of the world on a different level and my place in the world has been such an eye-opening experience.
For wannabe technomads, I say that the traditional: school to lowly office job, to ‘work up ladder to be CEO’ template that so many people conform to is becoming less and less relevant. The Internet gives us access to everyone in the world – we no longer have to prove ourselves to bosses if we can prove ourselves to the whole world directly.
If you have a skill that people are willing to pay for, and you are willing to work hard to figure out how to make it location independent then it is definitely worth trying for. See if you can convince your boss to let you take it home, or see if you can create a business yourself.
To do it via a website (as I do), the most important thing is to provide lots of helpful advice totally for free. I write over 8,000 words per week for free on my site to help people learn languages and this helps my website grow. A tiny percentage of new readers will decide that if what I give away for free is so great, then maybe what they would pay for is really worth it, and from this I can afford to focus even more on providing more free advice! Everybody wins!
For others who are considering long term travel, a good book that discusses aspects of how it may work is Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel by Rolf Potts. There are many guides online as you search around, and read other travel blogs – such as the network of helpful travel blog articles at Matador Travel.
By reading other travel blogs you will soon see that what we all have in common was just taking control, leaving excuses aside and hitting the road. If travel is your passion, find a way to make it work and stop putting it off. There is so much to discover out there, that you should try your hardest to make sure you can do it!
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
11. What and where’s next for Benny?
Every two or three months I move to a new country and challenge myself to an interesting new language mission. After Istanbul (where I’m currently learning Turkish), I’ll first pop home to my parents’ house to spend two weeks with my family during a traditional Irish music festival, before embarking on the next adventure.
To find out what this is, check out my blog and subscribe to the e-mail list (where I give clues to the next mission/destination and reveal it first). After that, well even I don’t know where the wind will be blowing me next…
Benny Lewis is a language hacker and technomad, who has been on the road for almost a decade. He blogs about his language learning missions at fluentin3months.com to encourage others to learn languages quickly and efficiently, and wrote in greater detail about how he does it in his Language Hacking Guide, the sales of which help support his travels.