Living the Dream: I'm a Digital Nomad
"Don't wait until retirement to live for the first time — experience life every chance you get."
Welcome to Living the Dream, a Livability.com series about people who made their big dreams a reality — and the places and communities that made it possible. Do you know someone who's carved out a unique lifestyle or business in a small town or small to mid-sized city? We're always looking for great stories. Email our editor for a chance to be featured!
Name: Arlene Freudenberg
Occupation: Digital Engagement Manager at Sculpt
Current location: Wandering somewhere in the Southwest or West Coast. Basically avoiding the snow as much as possible this winter.
Tell us about your job. What does a normal workday look like for you?
The only thing "normal" about my job is that I always sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee. Otherwise, there is a lot of variety in my day — which is what I prefer. Some days I might be on a call with the team brainstorming a new video concept while other days I'm neck deep in data trying to solve my client's objectives as efficiently as possible. But that's exactly why I love my job! I love that every day is different and every client has different needs. Yes, we have standard procedures and ways we do things. However, getting that creative freedom to craft unique messaging and find strategic ways to target specific audiences really keeps me on my toes.
Have you always worked remotely? What drew you to this lifestyle and when did you realize you could make it a reality?
Once upon a time, I was stuck in rush hour traffic every morning for at least an hour until I finally reached my cubicle in the middle of a windowless office. One day I was scrolling through Instagram and started seeing #vanlife posts. I knew instantly that was what I needed to start feeling fulfilled again. I loved traveling, but I was really limited on where I could go because I was only able to travel on the weekends.
I started researching how Van Lifers made a living — it took me almost two years before I was finally brave enough to take the plunge. Initially, I started as a freelancer, but I realized very quickly my preference would be to find a company that allowed me to work remote. So I did some research and realized that a lot of companies were hiring remote workers in order to cut overhead costs. So I applied, applied and applied until it became a reality. The first job I took that allowed me to work remotely had never had that kind of employee before. They just loved my previous work experience and were willing to try it out. Sometimes, you have to just keep pitching it and selling yourself in your interviews until you can make your dreams your reality.
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How did you make the transition? Was your company open to it or did they need some convincing?
As many people can imagine, when I first started talking about this transition in 2016, the company I was working for — at the time — did not support my dream of working remotely. I still remember the day I told my director about my vision. He openly laughed at me. So I began looking for a company that would support my digital nomad goal. When I found it, the transition was rough. It's hard to get used to not having creative brainpower from your coworkers on a regular basis and to stay motivated in a world full of distractions. However, I knew it was what I wanted and made it work. The key is finding the right company that supports your remote goals because communication gets even trickier when you're all digital. Without that company support, you're not likely to succeed.
How often do you relocate? Are you always on the move or do you stay in places longer-term?
It depends. If I have a larger workload or if my clients need me to be in Iowa for a video shoot, I reconfigure my travel plans to accommodate. However, if flexibility allows, I love getting the opportunity to head out on the road. In 2018, I was all about staying on the move and experiencing nature in my travel van. Along with my favorite hiking partner and furry dog companion, Carver, we traveled all over. Some of our favorite adventures including camping at Joshua Tree and Lake Tahoe in California, hiking Canyonlands and Arches in Utah, having a picnic at the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, and driving along the Needles Highway and the Black Hills in South Dakota.
Last year I spent more stationary, visiting with friends and family. I stayed with my grandmother in South Dakota. I took trips to the St. Louis Archway and experiencing the honky tonks of Nashville with my best friend. I also took a cruise to Mexico with my mom where we rode horseback and swam in waterfalls in Puerto Vallarta. I'm all about staying flexible and saying yes to as many opportunities that are presented to me. Someone once told me to dare to be that person who doesn't wait till retirement to live for the first time, but to experience life every chance you get. I've really taken that advice to heart.
Where do you normally work since you don't have a dedicated office? Coffee shops? Co-working spaces? Any tips for making the most of a temporary workspace?
I've been known to post up in coffee shops, restaurants and even a few grocery stores. I've worked on my hotspot in the middle of some of the most beautiful national parks, and I've also had my fair share of time in a few gas stations just trying to make it work. Once, I even took a call in the middle of the Grand Canyon because my work had an issue with our web server they needed my help on. I had to take it while standing on a picnic table at the top of a waterfall because that was the only way I could get cell reception.
All in all, my work is very important to me, so I try very hard to think about work spaces that are going to enable me to do the best job possible. If I have a lot of work calls, I may stay with a friend or in a hotel room. If I need creative stimulation, I may find a local coffee shop. If I need a place to write, I find local libraries are wonderful accommodations. In a world full of free wifi, it's easy to find a temporary work space. The hard part is finding a workspace that promotes focus. I am blessed that I can generally focus in nearly every condition. However, that's not always the case. So I recommend if you're thinking about transitioning, to figure out what what distractions you can and cannot work through. Then map out different possibilities ahead of time and test them out! You'll never know what's going to work for you until you start trying them out. If you get there, and you're having a hard time focusing, move.
What about this lifestyle has been rewarding?
I had relocated to Arizona right after college and since nearly all of my family is still in Iowa, I started to feel disconnected from them. Becoming a digital nomad has really helped me to feed my wanderlust soul but also stay grounded in my values. I love climbing to the summit of Mt. Lemmon just as much as I love sitting around the fire at my dad's house off the country roads in Iowa — which is also pretty much the only place I've been that doesn't have a reliable internet connection.
What have been some of the challenges of being a digital nomad?
For some reason, it's lost in translation that I do actually have a job. Becoming a digital nomad has opened up so many doors to staying flexible and visiting with people longer. However, when I am visiting, sometimes they forget that it's not a vacation — especially if they're retired. I find in these situations, it's best to establish office hours and find a place to work outside of their home. The physical act of leaving and saying I won't be back until 4 p.m. really helps to put things in perspective.
Where is your favorite place you've lived and worked so far and why did you love it?
I loved staying with my grandma at her assisted living in South Dakota! The situation that brought me there was really tough, but I will never regret the additional time I had with her because of it. She used to tell me stories about her past before bed every night, and I was able to assist her with errands including doctor visits. I miss her every day, but I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to live her life with her for awhile. Those are memories I wouldn't have if I was still tied to desk in Arizona.
What are some of your goals for this year, in work and travel?
In terms of travel, I don't know! That would require me to think a little bit farther in advance than I regularly do. My best friend and I want to keep traveling together at least once every year so I know that's on the agenda for spring. Also, my mom was inspired by me and just took a remote job herself, so I'm hoping that means more mother-daughter travel real soon. Other than that I was thinking of spending some time out in Yellowstone or possibly start plans for a Canada trip — I've always wanted to see Niagara Falls.
As far as work, I hope to continue working at and growing with Sculpt. We're expanding our service offerings every day, and I'm excited to be a critical part of Sculpt's continued growth.
What do you wish you'd known before going fully remote? Do you have any advice for others dreaming of making a shift to the digital nomad lifestyle?
Just go for it! There will be a lot of naysayers who will try to convince you that becoming a digital nomad is impossible or that you're making a mistake. But if you're committed to making it work, you'll find a way to be successful. Before jumping in, I would recommend taking some time to talk to other digital nomads about the work they do, how they get it and why they chose the route they did. I worked contract for awhile, but the instability in my take-home pay and the need to be your own salesperson made the work less rewarding with unnecessary stress. However, others thrive in contract work because of the flexible schedules. Spend some time figuring out what's most important for you, and take the initiative to do it!
What are some of the most memorable adventures you've taken?
I have been fortunate enough to backpack into Havasupai Falls in Arizona twice now. I cannot get over how beautiful that area is with its combination of red rocks and blue water. It's something I never dreamed I'd be able to do let alone twice! I credit my digital nomad lifestyle for making those trips a reality. Both times, my friends ended up with an extra permit. They knew they could call on me last minute because I am only ever a few days drive away, and generally already packed for an adventure.