From Vision to Subculture

10 minutes, 5 links


Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

If you were in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, Tim Ferriss needs no introduction. He is, after all, the person who won, by a huge margin, Wired magazine’s “self-promoter of the year” by public vote back in 2008. You might have encountered him at somebody else’s party, distributing copies of his five bestselling books. Or maybe you’ve come across his blog, YouTube channel, or podcast, where he interviews the crème de la crème of entrepreneurship and entertainment: celebrated characters like Marc Andreessen, Jimmy Wales, Margaret Atwood, Hugh Jackman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Amanda Palmer.

Ferriss’s first and most popular book was The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, published in 2007. Its core argument is that people should design the life they want and see the world now, not work in a soul-destroying job and wait for retirement to really live. In popularizing this idea, Ferriss piloted and promoted a new philosophy of life and work—one that has been simmering away in the background ever since. This notion of exploring the world and enjoying the good life became digital nomads’ guiding principle, and a global subculture of people began pursuing remote businesses, blending work and travel in new ways.

The same year The 4-Hour Workweek was published, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. Facebook was three years old, and though it already had 14 million users,* its addictive qualities were not yet so expertly tuned. (For context, 2.8 billion people now use Facebook at least once a month.)* Twitter had been around for just a year, a niche microblogging site populated by the small, fascinating subset of early adopters who still wear the “joined in 2006” badge on the platform today. YouTube was in its terrible twos, blubbering and buffering its way toward relevancy. Instagram, and the shiny influencer culture it is known for, had yet to be invented.

The mainstream internet may have been in its infancy, but the tech builders of Silicon Valley could see what was coming just as well as their predecessors had: all the tools necessary for people to work from anywhere, conveniently, affordably, and effectively. Ferriss was a prolific networker in the Bay Area, detecting those same signals as he wrote The 4-Hour Work Week. But would anybody choose to use their ever-thinner laptops and fancy new smartphones to actually do this? Or would “running away to Bali” just be something Californians excited themselves about at acid parties?

Enter Ferriss. In an environment not yet so saturated by the internet, he emerged as a self-help and “life hacking” guru, selling an alternative path to a familiar vision of success. He made a career out of teaching people how to think about money, harness their productivity, and be their “best self.” In the world according to Ferriss, these things are all simple to achieve—you just have to want them.

Millions of people bought into Ferriss’s philosophy, though far fewer took action in their own lives. Ferriss offers himself up as the guinea pig for every action he tells others to take. In doing so, he becomes his audience’s yardstick to measure themselves against: If he can do it, what’s stopping me? Through his blog, Ferriss made people feel like he was sharing insider knowledge—your successful friend who spills their secrets over dinner and a few drinks. He took ownership of the “self-experimentation” genre, and achieved astonishing success.

In the years following its release, The 4-Hour Workweek slowly spawned a movement of location-independence. To fund their adventures, Ferriss recommends his followers design a “low-lift” business. In this kind of venture, the owner has simplified operations sufficiently that it’s possible to minimize the hands-on work while also maximizing profits. The business itself can be anything. The approach is what’s important. Ferriss suggests readers do as he did and start a dropshipping company, buying cheap goods from manufacturing hubs like China and India, and using the internet to sell them to wealthy consumers in the West.

Ferriss’s own dropshipping business was that most noble of endeavors: a sports supplements brand. He founded BrainQUICKEN in 2001; by the time he sold the company to a private equity firm for an undisclosed sum in 2010, it was known as BodyQUICK. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Ferriss claims he was able to reduce his working hours at BodyQUICK from 80 per week to just four. (Notably, friends and colleagues say Ferriss works many more hours than that each week as an author, podcaster, YouTuber, speaker, entrepreneur and investor, and has done so every single year since The 4-Hour Workweek was published.*)

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Many people arrived on the ground in a faraway country, however, and decided to skip a step. Rather than following Ferriss’s entrepreneurial path, they used the internet to create online courses and digital learning materials to aid others in becoming digital nomads. Some developed products on how to build a dropshipping business, despite never having done it themselves. These people aspired not to the “low-lift business” part of Ferriss’s vision, but wanted to become self-help gurus instead—often without embarking on the “self-experimentation” path at all, unless buying a plane ticket counts.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a lively cottage industry of course creators, virtual teachers, coaches, bloggers, and event organizers sprung up. The 2014 nomad study by Beth Altringer, the Harvard professor who visited Ubud, suggested that most of them didn’t earn enough to do well. This creates something akin to a multi-level marketing or “pyramid” scheme like Avon or Herbalife. These nomads’ finances rely almost entirely on converting others to the lifestyle. It’s a trend that persists to this day.

There has always been tension between the “social media nomads” and the rest. Aspirational content about nomadism is many people’s entry point to the movement, though it’s not representative of most nomads’ activities, intentions, or experiences. As a frustrated participant in the Harvard study put it: “They post pictures of themselves lying around on the beach, and then my clients start thinking I’m less reliable if I’m a digital nomad.”

The trend of nomad-influencers is a highly visible manifestation of Ferriss’s worldview, inviting would-be nomads to see the world as their playground and prioritize individual gain over everything else. Ferriss encourages his followers to leverage global currency and cost differences in what he calls “geo-arbitrage,” short for geographic arbitrage. The calculation is simple: If you’re earning a New York or London salary, your money lasts longer and buys you more away from those locations: tropical climates all year round, modern apartment buildings with gyms and pools, and varied, affordable dining options. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to travel and improve your lifestyle, but the very concept of geo-arbitrage highlights the stark inequalities between people born in different countries.

Ferriss also uses virtual assistants, usually located in much poorer countries, to stay on top of his admin work and anything else he doesn’t feel like doing. When asked about the ethics of outsourcing undesirable tasks to cheaper markets in a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, Ferriss said: “There are people I have outsourced to in India who now outsource portions of their work to the Philippines. It’s the efficient use of capital, and if you want the rewards of a free market, if you want to enjoy the rewards of the capitalist system, these are the rules by which you play.”

To look at all of this as a game is easy for folks with the right passport, born in the right place, at the right moment in history. Ferriss does not acknowledge the passport lottery he won, nor does he dwell on the matter of geo-arbitrage only being possible for some.

Ferriss’s perspective is perhaps easy to grasp if, like the majority of early nomads, you are male, white, wealthy and American. Of course, most of the world is not. But that point doesn’t get addressed in The 4-Hour Workweek.

Still, the book was the catalyst needed for the ideas of work from anywhere to move beyond being possible and become desirable. Without a character like Ferriss to slot the components of global remote work together, showing what our lives could look like, digital nomadism may have remained the quirky fascination of fringe futurists for another decade. Instead, there was now a guide and a guidebook—and it was a bestseller. But it wouldn’t be long before Ferriss’s ideas were remixed with new values.

The Birth of Nomad List

In April 2013, an MBA grad named Pieter Levels, then 27, sold all his stuff and set off from the Netherlands to travel the world.

A few years earlier, when he was studying at Rotterdam School of Management, Levels accidentally launched his first online business. He uploaded electronic music mixes to YouTube and his channel, Panda Mix Show, quickly took off. By the time Levels graduated in 2012, he was making $2K per month.* A friend commented that this income meant he could live “pretty much anywhere.” He’d already spent six months studying abroad on an exchange program as a teenager, so the idea of going overseas didn’t faze him much. Plus, he was curious to see if he could maintain an income on the road.

Over the next few months, Levels got rid of everything that didn’t fit in his backpack, then boarded a one-way flight to Thailand. He kept hearing about The 4-Hour Workweek, but assessed that the business of dropshipping was “bullshit” and definitely not his scene.*

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