Amna Shamim’s Story of Freelancing While Wandering the Globe

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This is the latest interview in a series featuring digital nomads talking about their lives and lessons (click here if you want to be interviewed). The goal is to help demystify the process of making money online, wandering the world, and living an unconventional life!

Amna fell into life as a digital nomad when she started freelancing and only took on jobs that allow her to work remotely. We share her love of Kindles, morning yoga, and relate to her one life lesson to share.

Thanks for being here, Amna!

Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?

Hi, I’m Amna. I was a New Yorker, but now I’m a nomad, albeit a very stationary one thanks to the pandemic. I’m in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, but my visa status tells me I’ll soon be moving on to San Jose, Costa Rica.

I’m a writer and a growth strategist. I am the Chief Growth Officer at Parsl, an international cannabis supply chain technology company. I also run a marketing agency that works with small business owners in the USA and Canada. In my free time, I write professionally. I do sleep 7-8 hours/night, and in normal times, I also have a social life.

I really love what I do now, but I remember once upon a time when I didn’t. I disliked my work so much that I never spent an extra second on it and never talked about it (They were only paying me to do it, so why waste my unpaid time thinking about it?)

Becoming a nomad was an accident. I started exploring cities to move to if they proved to be better than NYC. It turned out none of them was, but the combination of them was better than staying put. I left New York City on October 1, 2014, and I’m so glad I did.

I’ve been on the road for over six years, and I used to travel pretty quickly and “live” in many places. I’ve spent the most time over the last six years in Thailand, Vietnam, Colombia, Argentina, the UK, France, Canada, and Mexico.

Amna profile

What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?

I didn’t really mean to become a digital nomad. I just started traveling for a bit to explore other places I might want to live next and haven’t stopped yet! Before I started nomading, I had lived my entire post-college life in NYC and thought I should at least consider other cities before signing another lease, so I moved my stuff into a storage space and hit the road. Six years later, I guess I’m still deciding?

I like stuff. I am a terrible minimalist. However, nomading has really changed my perspective on what things are actually necessary for my happiness and what things I used to accumulate out of boredom or because society made me think I needed them. You have to really love something to be willing to pack it up and schlep it around the world for years, and it turns out there are a lot of things I don’t love that much (and yet a surprising number of things I do).

What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?

Oh, this is an impossible question. If I loved just 2-3 places, I’d have settled into just cycling between them on an annual basis. I love different places at different times of the year and based on different needs workwise. For example, I adore Penang, Malaysia, but it’s terrible for me to spend time in Asia with my current work schedule. I also found it impossible to get around there because of the traffic. 

Most of my favorite places, or at least the places I return to, often depend on who is there and when. Medellin would also have been very high on my list and has been historically but has dropped much further down now that two of my favorite people there have left. I still like it enough to go sometimes, but will I spend another 2-3 month stretch there? Probably not any time soon.

So I guess the only place I can name without hesitation is New York City. I adore it. Of course, not in the winter, but spring, summer, especially fall are glorious in NYC. It has incredible food and lots of culture. I could spend a lifetime exploring the museums and restaurants and never grow bored. I have great friends and family there, and it has wonderful international airports, so I’m only ever a short flight away from an adventure.

New York City isn’t a great nomad destination, though. It’s expensive, but more than that, it’s a hard city where it takes time to figure out your rhythm. Nomads don’t usually stick around long enough to find that rhythm, and so it’s not worth it. 

Spectacularly unhelpful, right? Just ping me on social media for my current list of recommendations, and it is ever-changing.

Amna in some wind

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?

If you’re thinking about nomading, ask yourself, “why?” Why are you leaving where you live? What do you hope to get out of it? What do you anticipate your biggest struggles to be? What do you plan to do to help ease your way? How do you intend to handle the logistics of flights and housing and visas and internet and food? How will you ensure you are still productive while traveling? How do you intend to ensure your local impact is neutral or positive?

I’m not saying any of this to discourage you. I think nomading is great, but I think it’s even better when you are going into it with a plan. I’ll confess that I didn’t intend to become a nomad, and so I ended up having to figure out the answers to all these questions on the road.

It took me way too long to figure out things like “country hopping every 2-3 weeks negatively impacts my productivity” and “I’d rather work at night than in the morning.” 

still haven’t figured out how to explain to people that my life isn’t a full-time vacation. Years ago, I had a friend visit, and even though I had articulated quite clearly that I had several deadlines during the week she wanted to visit, she expected me to be able to take most of the week off to hang out, etc.

I ended up working while she was sleeping, which sucked because I was exhausted by the time she left. Drawing those boundaries and prioritizing work can sometimes be tricky, so now I have a plan for that (spoiler: the plan is telling them no.)

Outside of a pandemic, I don’t usually struggle with loneliness and am willing to chat with perfect strangers when out and about, but if you’re shy or need a lot of social interaction, pick places with big nomad communities or have a plan for how to make friends. Going somewhere else to be alone is a terrible idea unless you really, really like being alone.

I speak Spanish, but that didn’t help me at all when traveling around Asia. Get comfortable outside of your comfort zone. Nomading is going to challenge you and help you discover and develop new skills, but only if you let it.

Please tell us your detailed story of how you got into your line of work and how you turned it into a remote career.

I’m not sure my answer will be helpful as I’ve always been WFH or remote. I’ve never had a full-time job, so I don’t really have any useful advice regarding taking an in-person job or career remote. 

Because I’ve always freelanced, I’ve only taken on projects that allowed me to work remotely. I’ve been offered other jobs and projects but have turned them down.

Cheers to Amna with some wine

What does a day in your work life look like? Paint a picture for us :).

I don’t have a “typical” day at work. Right now, I am working a lot as I help launch a few different projects and maintain my usual client work. I’ve filled in a lot of my formerly social time with work, but I’m intentionally choosing projects that challenge me and that I feel will have a positive impact.

There are a few things I do consistently every day. For example, I have a wake-up and wind-down routine that I follow every day. I try to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night. I walk away from my computer and watch a Masterclass or YouTube video while I eat lunch.  

I write my to-do list for work every day and prioritize my top 3 things. I eat the frog every morning. 

Most of my projects are asynchronous, so we communicate via slack and email, occasionally on what’s app or FB messenger, throughout the week. Some have weekly meetings. I enjoy deliverables-based work vs. logging hours, so I don’t take on projects that require me to log hours. As a result, I have a terrible sense of how long anything takes me, but I know how to get it done.

People look at my schedule and my workload and think I’m crazy, but I have figured out a rhythm for it all that makes sense to me. I don’t know that it would work for anyone else, but I love it.

What digital tools do you use for your work?

I rely on Slack, Google docs, and Spark (the mail app) and use them daily. Depending on the project, I’m also on JIRA, ClickUp, and Hubspot. I use Zoom and Skype. I am across multiple projects, and each one has its own suite of tools, so if it’s commonly used, I use it at least occasionally.

For someone interested in getting into your field of work, what’s the best advice you would give? And what books, podcasts, thought leaders, or other learning resources do you recommend?

I don’t work in just one field, so this is going to be a long answer. 

I read voraciously and follow the news, and what’s happening in every industry I touch. Mostly I work in cannabis, so you’ll find me plodding through BDSA and Prohibition Partners reports on a regular basis. I follow several influencers on Twitter and LinkedIn and subscribe to lots of newsletters, so I’m not missing major news and updates. 

Follow Michael Patterson for general industry news and Codie Sanchez for a financial perspective. Abraham Villegas of the Cannabis Community is a good one for USA-focused cannabis insights, including ones that big organizations miss because a lot of his insights are from the community he has built. You can also join his communities (which I highly recommend.)

To stay abreast of Marketing stuff, I follow Rand FishkinBrian Dean, and quite literally Google. I spend a lot of time making sure I’m tuned into who my audience is and what they need and want. Because I mostly work in cannabis or with small businesses, I stay on top of those audiences.

I am also a writer, so I follow grammar nerds on Twitter and some of my favorite authors. I have a Masterclass subscription and am always taking courses to improve. I quite like the insights of Natasha Khullar Relph and her courses. 

As far as podcasts, I tend to catch the webinars that Abraham/The Cannabis Community has and specific episodes of others. Stuff You Missed in History ClassRevisionist History, and The Indicator are all fun.

If you want to do marketing, my advice is to be prepared to always have to keep learning as the marketing landscape is changing rapidly, and you can’t afford to be left behind. If you don’t want to keep learning, please pick something else.

Amna balcony

If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons you would share with the world?

Fuck them. It doesn’t matter what they think.

Too often, we let our insecurities hold us back. We let our fear of what others think keep us from chasing our dreams. And that’s a shame because the only one who is suffering is us. 

It’s hard to put ourselves first – our needs, wants, and dreams – but we need to have fulfilling lives. I’m not saying that we should be utterly selfish, but if we’re not hurting anyone else, why shouldn’t we have what will make us happy? 

And we really do need to put the time and effort into figuring out what actually makes us happy vs. what society has told us will make us happy. 

What’s the best purchase you’ve made under $100 in the last 12 months?

This is going to sound so silly, but my Kindle Paperwhite is probably the best purchase under $100 that I’ve made in the last 12 months that I haven’t immediately consumed (I love food.) 

I try to wind down at night by reading a book for pleasure (mostly historical fiction because I’m a nerd), and having a kindle allows me to disconnect from my devices where people are trying to reach me. It’s also easier to read in sunlight, which makes it perfect for when I can steal away for an hour in the afternoon to read on my friend’s rooftop, and it’s water-resistant, so I can read on my patio with a cup of tea when it’s raining.

I used to fret about paper books getting wet or being hard to manage one-handed, so my Kindle Paperwhite solves all those issues. I think they’re normally over $100, but I got it during Prime Day, so it was definitely under $100.

Amna with a stuffed animal

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

I have started doing yoga almost daily—just a quick 15 minutes of stretching when I wake up in the mornings. I have chosen a series without any verbal instructions, just music. While I’m sure the stretching helps offset all the hours at my computer, the 15 minutes of headspace to just stop thinking and relax has been incredible for me. I ease into the day and feel calmer throughout. 

I think the critical thing has been taking the time for myself, which I have been historically terrible about doing on a consistent basis. 

How can people learn more about you and your work?

If you’re interested in connecting, come find me on TwitterInstagram, or LinkedIn!

Lauren is a freelance journalist from Seattle. She travels the globe in search of the best grocery stores, bouldering gyms, and snorkeling locations. Her mission at Freedom Is Everything is to help others make the transition into location-independent lifestyles.