Work-life balance has always been a top priority for me. Throughout my career, I’ve struggled to maintain a sense of independence while working for more traditionally corporate employers, leaving me to make somewhat unconventional requests along the way.
Whether it was advocating for remote workdays in an office where that was unheard of, making the case for a 32-hour workweek, or shifting my schedule to better accommodate my natural energy peaks and lows, I’ve never been shy about speaking up for what I wanted in this area. And yet, no matter how flexible my employers were with me, I still felt restless and constrained.
In 2011, I launched a part-time, freelance side hustle as a writer and editor. A few years in, I began to wonder if I could use this freelance work to break out of location-dependent work entirely. I knew I’d be in good company: According to Forbes, 50% of the workforce will soon be remote, and this flexibility only increases employee engagement and motivation.
I had dreams of traveling the world and not having to answer to anyone but myself.
It took me nine years to actually make the move, however. In 2018, I was leaving New Orleans to start life anew on the West Coast and I decided to take the leap — in both location and lifestyle — and become a full-time freelancer. I couldn’t wait to grow my business to a point where I could travel non-stop and make the world my office.
Within the first six months of funneling all of my energy into attracting clients, I was in a place where I could completely sustain myself financially. I could officially afford to do what I’d always dreamed of: I could fly to Italy and work there as I explored the Amalfi coast. I could take a quick mid-week trip to anywhere in the country and not even have to take time off. I could do whatever I wanted.
But then, reality set in. The truth is, I didn’t feel as excited as I’d imagined I would. I was surprised at how, well, exhausted I felt at this time in my life. Perhaps not surprisingly (given that I’m a perfectionist who tends to be quite hard on myself), I felt like I had to be working all of the time. I felt pressured to respond to clients right away to prove my worth, and I had a hard time setting boundaries. I missed having a sense of structure that wasn’t totally self-imposed and the ability to turn work “off” without feeling guilty.
Let’s be honest: The digital nomad influencers make their lifestyle look full of ease, fun and style. I felt ridiculous for not feeling as they seemed to.
I was painfully lonely, working alone day in and day out. I’m an introvert and whereas in the past, work provided some sort of social interaction and traveling alone was a welcome reprieve, now I felt alone all of the time and, for me, that diminished the shine of being a digital nomad. I missed being part of a community, whether it was personal or professional. I felt faceless, without an identity.
I did take several solo trips during this period of freelancing, and I enjoyed the novelty of, say, reading on the shores of Lake Tahoe beaches or roaming my old stomping grounds in New Orleans while everyone else was at work. This didn’t offset my overarching longing for some sort of community and structure, though.
During this time, I thought a lot about how I was feeling and how to “fix” it. I tried co-working spaces (verdict: too expensive!) and meet-up events (somewhat rewarding, but draining for an introvert), as well as therapy to address my perfectionism and burnout (still working on that). I was confused: I knew I’d been unhappy in a traditional work environment, but now I also felt unhappy defining everything on my own terms and being completely responsible for my own success.
The question remained: Was there a balance somewhere in between where I’d been and where I was now?
Turns out, there is a happy middle and I’m lucky to be living there (for now).
A little over a year after I dove into freelancing full time, I was unexpectedly offered a salaried role with a client I was already working with. As part of our agreement, I would still have the freedom to freelance for other clients, and I would only need to be physically on-site twice a week. I could work remotely the rest of the week and on an as-desired basis while traveling — essentially making this my dream scenario.
I now have a team that I interface with in-person a couple of times a week. I get to enjoy the benefits and stability of a creative full-time job, while still having the freedom and flexibility that’s always been so important to me. To be honest, I’m still grappling with burnout because my workload has only grown, but I do feel much better overall.
I know there are many people out there who are completely satisfied working as freelancers or digital nomads, and I think the important thing is to find what works best for you. Prior to accepting this job, I wasn’t sure that a job could actually check all of my boxes, but my story is proof that there’s hope you'll find your perfect medium.
Nikki Carter is a writer-editor-strategist currently based in San Diego, where she writes about sobriety, personal growth, tech, productivity, and more. Nikki is passionate about freedom, telling the truth, and supporting other women/non-binary folks of color. Follow her on Instagram @nikitanola.