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!
Helen is a graphic designer and web developer who realized she didn’t need to be tied to an office to make a living. Since then, she’s traveled extensively with her adult children. We love her use of the “everywhere” button when deciding where to fly to next. Be sure to check out her blog and new podcast!
Thank you for sharing your story with Freedom Is Everything, Helen!
Key takeaways from Helen’s interview:
“I wasn’t afraid of traveling. I was afraid of not traveling. I loved every moment of seeing history first hand, touching old buildings, buying sour cream instead of yogurt because I couldn’t read the label, getting lost on public transport, and people watching over a coffee. I was afraid of growing old without having experienced the world.”
“You’ll find some things harder. Some things easier. Letting go of expectations of how you think things should be is the best advice I can give. Don’t compare other countries to yours. Go with the flow. Live in the moment. Don’t overpack.”
“My passion is helping people fit in exercise where they can without killing themselves. Helping people lose weight without giving up everything they love. There are so many ‘rules’ and so much misinformation out there. I want to help people become healthier and happier (not healthier and bitter).”
Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?
I am a hybrid of two nations: The United States and Norway. I was born in the U.S. but grew up in Norway. I think living between two worlds sparked my love of learning new cultures.
I currently live in California, where I’ve been since the pandemic began.
I am a middle-aged graphic designer/web developer who got tired of the rat race, packed up her laptop, and left the country.
What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?
I was burned out, tired of my life. Tired of juggling my graphic design/web design business, teaching Spin classes, and training clients at my home gym while raising (older) kids. I was on a life treadmill that just went faster and faster and faster.
The first time I hit the road was in August of 2015. The lease was up on my rented house, and I couldn’t take my groundhog day life another minute.
I went to Thailand, where my sister lives (she founded a nonprofit there), and spent six months working remotely while I traveled through Southeast Asia. As a digital nomad, I could still serve my clients back in the U.S. Same work, different location brought me a lot more satisfaction.
In 2017, when my youngest child graduated from high school and another house lease was up yet again, my two young adult kids and I put our belongings into storage and left the U.S. for an amazing journey.
My son and I both worked as digital nomads, and we traveled throughout Europe and Southeast Asia along with my daughter.
Later, after the kids returned to the U.S., I kept traveling and working from different locations around the world for 1.5 years.
Traveling lit a fire inside me that I thought had been extinguished. Living in different countries—not just being on vacation—brought a whole other perspective to my life. I have learned that the poorest people I have met are the happiest and most generous. Visiting mass murder and war sites taught me that my problems—our problems—are petty compared to what so many people around the world have been through.
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’ve been a graphic designer/web designer for many years. When I was young, I was a secretary. Later I became a software trainer, then a writer. Eventually, I used my tech and creative skills to start my own graphic design/web design studio. I was early to the game and one of the (then) few women in the web development field.
I worked from home for myself from when the kids were little. I finally realized—after a vacation with the kids to Norway, where I had to bring my laptop to finish a project—that I didn’t have to be stuck at home working. I could take my job on the road. I have a Google Voice number so clients can reach me wherever I am.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?
Think about how much time you like to spend alone versus with others. I love to be by myself, so I had no issues with loneliness.
In Europe, the Balkans, etc., there are free walking tours where you can meet people with the same interests (plus you get exercise). It can be fun to connect with someone in a city, just to meet up for another tour or meal in another city. In Southeast Asia, I joined a couple of female digital nomad groups and was able to make friends with people I’m still in contact with. In Thailand, we went as a group to an amazing template in the north; in Cambodia, I was invited to a Holi festival (which I would not have done if I was alone).
I was much less anxious traveling than being in the U.S. The constant new stimuli (currency, language, transportation, food) really lights up my brain. When I traveled by myself, I would go on walking tours during the day (where available), eat lunch out, then work in my room in the evenings, cooking with fresh ingredients from local markets. Sometimes I would work from coworking spaces, which helped me focus better than if I was working by myself.
I wasn’t afraid of traveling. I was afraid of not traveling. I loved every moment of seeing history first hand, touching old buildings, buying sour cream instead of yogurt because I couldn’t read the label, getting lost on public transport, and people watching over a coffee. I was afraid of growing old without having experienced the world. Without having seen bullet-ridden walls. Walking through concentration camps. Feeling history. Living history. Never forgetting the atrocities that had been done.
The most important parts of being a digital nomad are: 1) Wifi. 2) The ability to enjoy your own company. 3) The ability to change on a dime. 4) Realizing that nothing will be like “home,” nor should it be.
You’ll find some things harder. Some things easier. Letting go of expectations of how you think things should be is the best advice I can give. Don’t compare other countries to yours.
Go with the flow. Live in the moment. Don’t overpack.
My backpack was too big. My tech bag was too heavy. In Europe and the Balkans, many of my AirBNBs or rooms were on the 4th or 5th floor with no elevator. Or far from public transportation. Instead of being upset as I climbed stair after stair with half my body weight in luggage strapped to me, I marveled at how strong my legs were getting and that I could finally get some cardio.
Re-frame your experience when things don’t go your way.
Keep an open mind. I was often twice the age of other digital nomads I met. I didn’t let that stop me from making friends.
Ask other digital nomads where they recommend you go next. Don’t “book out” your whole trip before you leave home. Plan maybe one or two “jumps” and then talk to people. I ended up in Serbia (and then other Balkan countries) because I asked two different digital nomads where I should go over one summer since I could not afford to stay in Europe. The Balkans were pretty amazing.
One of my favorite things to do was to use Skyscanner and the “Everywhere” feature to find the cheapest place to travel to from a city. That’s how my kids and I ended up in Milan, Italy, from London, UK. How we ended up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while trying to outrun a potential volcano eruption in Bali. Or how I ended up in Krakow, Poland, from Oslo, Norway. Change on a dime.
What is unique about the way you travel, and what advice do you have for someone that wants to travel with a similar style?
I traveled by working at one location and saving up just enough money to jump to the next location. My goal was to work less, travel more, so everything I did was budgeted. I got to visit some really fantastic places I never would have gone to if I’d had a bigger budget.
I also traveled with my (older) kids for a while, which was incredible. We got to experience things together, and we will always have those memories. Even when things went wrong, we still got a chuckle out of it because we were together. They learned, but I learned too. We learned together, as a family.
What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?
Bosnia. Incredibly beautiful and steeped with history, Bosnia is one of my favorite places. It’s an inexpensive country to pass summers when most of Europe is overpriced. People are friendly. Coffee and baked goods are cheap. You learn so much about the human spirit and our ability to overcome tragedy.
Koh Lanta, Thailand. This small island is a hidden gem with the most spectacular sunsets and friendly people, from the locals to the expats. It feels like my second home. Every Thai restaurant serves fresh and incredible food. It’s easy to get around on the island by scooter, and there are sparsely populated beaches where you can enjoy a sunny day by yourself.
Koh Lanta also is home to Lanta Animal Welfare, an animal rescue that sterilizes strays and cares for injured animals. Visitors to the island can walk dogs, pet cats and have a bite at the Kitty City café, surrounded by extra-friendly feline friends. If you have a talent you’d like to volunteer, they are always in need of creative people for photography, videography, etc.
What does a day in your work life look like? Paint a picture for us :).
When I’m traveling in the Europe/Balkan area, my day is usually drinking French press or cold brew coffee I make and eating breakfast in my room. I answer emails, then head out on a walking tour, or just scout the city myself. Often I will eat lunch out, then walk back to my apartment/room to work. I normally shop at local markets, so I either make dinner for myself or run out and grab something. Then I do client work throughout the evening. I find that I am the opposite of many. I prefer to have my reward (sightseeing/strolling) first, then do my work later. I feel much more satisfied that way.
When I am in Oslo, Norway (where I grew up), or Koh Lanta, Thailand (my “second home”), then my schedule changes a bit depending on the people around me.
I have been to coworking spaces in different countries. If I need the use of a printer, or if I just need stronger WiFi, I’ll go to a coworking space.
I do graphic design (printed pieces, periodicals, social media graphics), social media training, public relations, and web development/SEO. I can do that from anywhere.
As a woman, what should other people who identify similarly (and who haven’t traveled much) know about traveling/nomading?
I’m a woman but never felt fear while traveling. I feel far more fearful at home. I never put myself in any situation that could end up somewhat dangerous. I tended to spend most evenings inside (when not on Koh Lanta or in Oslo) and preferred to go out during the day.
Having an emergency plan; making sure your emergency contact information is available in case of medical emergency; using your head; wearing comfortable shoes; being alert; not texting when walking alone at night; making friends with others like you (no matter who you are); learning about local customs, so you don’t accidentally offend people; don’t get pass-out drunk in public; check the license plate of the Uber or Grab to make sure it matches the one on the rideshare app… these are all common sense things you can do to keep yourself safe.
What is one of your favorite travel stories/experiences?
Oh, there are so many, both funny and dumb. Repeatedly buying sour cream instead of yogurt in different countries comes to mind. This doesn’t sound like much, but finding a laundromat where I had the best waffles and coffee while I waited (and worked) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was one of them. Actually touching the Berlin wall another. Ending up in Sarajevo quite accidentally during their International Film Festival was an unexpected treat (they had a “party tram” with a DJ and dancing that went through the city).
What digital tools do you use for your work?
Creative Suite (Photoshop/InDesign), Garageband, ClickUp, Trello, video editing apps,
Backblaze (for remote backup), Rebrandly, Kartra, Loom, Zoom, Skype, Goodnotes, Snapseed (photo editing on devices), ContentStudio, Xmind, VLC, Handbrake, WordPress, SEOPress, Ubersuggest.
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?
Learn as much as you do. Research the latest in programs and apps. If you are interested in doing design, look for examples or classes from people who are more “classically trained” to learn the basics of design and how to work with print. Know vector from raster images; RGB from CMYK.
For web development, work with a designer (or for web design, have a developer on-hand in case you get stuck). Have an open mind and come from a place that you don’t know anything (even if you do).
Do free work, but do good free work. Your reputation is tied to all you do, so don’t do a half-assed job because someone didn’t pay for it. Learn from as many people as you can. Ask questions. Join Facebook groups. Join digital nomad groups on Facebook. Join design or development groups. Join Reddit and ask questions (answer them too). Or take classes, but make sure they are current with their curriculum. Be willing to learn and change. Don’t get stuck on doing things one way. There are always options. Work hard. Double-check everything. Set boundaries.
Tell us about your content creation journey and share some of your favorite content that people should check out!
I started a podcast in December of 2020. Since I could not travel and I could no longer teach Spin classes (since gyms were closed), I used my coaching skills to create a “walkcast.” Walking & Talking with Helen is a coached walk/podcast. I started somewhat on a whim when I realized that people were sort of aimless and were not getting any exercise in since they were often working from home and gyms were mostly closed.
I started editing the episodes myself but then started to send them out to a pro I hired on Fiverr to remove background noise, etc. I hired someone also on Fiverr to create a jingle for the podcast.
My podcast is at www.walkingandtalking.show, and my blog (if you’re looking for ways to get healthier without giving up everything you love) is at www.realworldweightloss.com. The blog is my pet project, born out of my own experience 15 years ago of losing 80 pounds. I am transitioning into mindset coaching, working with people who want to make sustainable changes to their health, fitness levels, or weight without deprivation or impossible rules. Because I love chocolate. And Thai banana Nutella pancakes.
If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons you would share with the world?
Walk in other peoples’ shoes. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Realizing how lucky you are for all that you had and have. Smile. Hug your kids or parents. Laugh with strangers. Collect memories, not material things.
What do you travel with that you couldn’t imagine traveling without?
Small, hollow foam roller (you can store things inside)
Flat, portable laptop desk with retractable mouse tray
Booty bands (I bring just one or two of the bands)
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Learning to be flexible. To not plan as much.
What is your philosophy on being happy and/or finding meaning/purpose in life? And any recommended resources for people navigating this journey?
Being happy to me is to be grateful for what I have. My family. What I’ve seen. Where I’ve been.
Finding joy in the little things: Street art. Sunsets. Sand between your toes. Petting the soft fur of a cat. Snuggling up with the kids in a strange city, watching a movie. A 1 Euro latte in a foreign city.
Tell us about a deep passion of yours! What has your journey been like, and what advice/resources would you recommend for someone interested in learning more about this topic?
My passion is helping people fit in exercise where they can without killing themselves. Helping people lose weight without giving up everything they love. There are so many “rules” and so much misinformation out there. I want to help people become healthier and happier (not healthier and bitter). To feel strong. Capable. Confident. Able to take on the world.
How can people learn more about you and your work?
Travel Instagram: https://instagram.com/midlifecrisistraveller
Healthy Living Is Your Superpower Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/healthylivingisyoursuperpower/