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Santa Barbara, Ca

I'm a full-time rambler and contract designer with as many skill sets in my quiver as there are plane tickets in my passbook. I've worked in ornamental iron, jigsaw puzzle design, bookmaking, glass engraving, and a variety of other mediums. I'm currently living out of a backpack as I trek my way around the world.

Blog

So I'm a Digital Nomad. Now What?

Zak Erving

Temporary office in a tea house on the Slovenian coast

Temporary office in a tea house on the Slovenian coast

Coastal Slovenia is quiet—but not too  quiet. Tucked neatly between Italy and Croatia—"the Mediterranean as it once was"—the Mediterranean as it is occupies a softspoken slab of the Adriatic Sea less than 50km long, pitting Piran and Izola and Portoroz against all of Istria and the Italian Gulf of Trieste, not to mention the grandeur of Venice, which is easily accessible in a half-day of transit. But for me, I was a bit tired of the pomp and circumstance, and was in dire need of a solid week of not moving around too much.

Not too much to ask for a full-time traveler, right? 

Koper secured my stay for a week in August, away from high-season tourists to the north and south. I had a few doubts about a place I'd never heard of, but decided I had picked wisely on the first night, when I accidentally walked around the entire town with little effort. It's perfect , I thought. One has to steer hard to hit Koper, since most travelers carry on to Piran or Portoroz, if they stay in Slovenia at all.

For the past month I'd been on the road, prototyping a new yet-to-be-finalized program with a former student of mine.  We started in Warsaw, Poland in early July, trickled down through the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and finally Italy before the test run came to a close. What amounted to a success also beckoned me for some serious downtime and headspace. Having been living out of a backpack since December, I felt it time to give some serious thought to a question I'd been mulling over since:

So I'm a digital nomad. Now what?

If you had met me in the fall of 2011, you'd have met the real-life version of Pigpen from Charles Schultz' Peanuts. I was working at an iron forge as a production assistant, working with a top-notch team of metal artisans and welders. Because of the nature of my work, a cloud of dirt followed me everywhere. Having clean fingernails was a hope I'd long given up, and I'd resorted to showering with pumice and s-brite pads to get rid of the grime. In expensive Santa Barbara, I was making just enough money to keep on  breathing, and little else. I'd taken a 2/3 pay cut from my previous job as a teacher, but I couldn't have been happier.

You can't tell because of my mask, but I'm smiling

You can't tell because of my mask, but I'm smiling

In another city, this would have been the perfect setup for a long, fulfilling career. Unfortunately, coastal southern California isn't budget-friendly to a skilled day-laborer.

And then my hours got cut. Significantly.  My budget got even tighter, and I found myself keeping a close eye even on the miles I drove each week. I would walk into Trader Joe's and do a mental tally of my groceries for the week, often to the dime. I was happy, to be sure, but I knew that if I stayed in this rhythm for the next year, nothing was going to change, and I had big goals on the horizon.

Specifically, I wanted to become a digital nomad, someone who takes his work on the road with him, ticking off items on the travel checklist while still pulling in a paycheck. Given that I'd recently found myself in the lowest tax bracket recognized by the IRS, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to cut my ties to Santa Barbara, move in with the folks back in Alaska, and launch Sparkpunk Media.

In retrospect, I did just about everything wrong that one could do when starting a business: I had no startup capital, no clients, and no significant online presence. But of all the things I did wrong starting a business, there were two things that I did right. First, I wrote out my goals. Second, I didn't give up. Plus, there was a little bit of right place, right time in the mix (hint: to be in the right place at the right time, just stand in the right place all the time).

I've now turned around work in over a dozen countries spread across two continents and an ocean. I've accepted new work from urban coffee shops, produced it at 35,000 feet, and submitted it from the ass of a volcano on an island in the middle of a lake. No fewer than ten visits to Tim Horton's in one month have been business expenses (on account of using the wifi there), and instead of paying rent I pay for a bed in a dorm in whatever city I'm traveling. By all accounts, I've made it. I'm a digital nomad.

What do I do now?

Short of going to outer space, I accomplished everything I set out to do—and in quick fashion, by most entrepreneurial standards. My list of goals has been mostly met, but two years after the adventure began I recognize a familiar scenario: if I keep doing it this way, not much is going to change in the next year.

The mulling process began long before Slovenia, and I left Koper over a month ago. The thought process has led to some great conversations with Mike Sowden (one of my favorite writers), and though the list is still in its toddler phase, I'd like to share it with you here:

Zak's "Now What?" Goals, 2013-2014

  1. Ramblers: I'm starting a "wandering school/workshop/internship," quite possibly the first of its kind. I'm still building up the overview and curriculum, but in principle it will be an opportunity for undergrad college students to combine professional development and great travel experiences. The first session is scheduled for summer 2014.
  2. Book release: Not to be one of those guys, but I'm writing a book. No, really! I have the outline for it and everything! Think Anne Lamotte's Bird by Bird, but with a travel emphasis instead of writing. I'm hoping to release it some time in the spring.
  3. e-Commerce: I have a few services for sale on this website,  but I'm also interested in launching a small line of travel products you never knew you needed until you saw that they existed. Really, I just want the products for myself, but prototyping can be expensive, and at that point the investment for a thousand pieces just seems more appropriate. I'm looking at a spring launch date for the first product.
  4. Expand: I like designing things a lot, but the lines are getting blurrier and blurrier between schools of design. Interactive media will soon take over as the public's primary information source, and my days for being a one-trick pony are limited. I'll be branching into other fields of creativity, like coding or CAD.

So why am I sharing this list on the blog? It's simple: by making it public, I now feel responsible for following through. It's easy to defer work if goals are private. I put the pro in procrastination, but if I know that others know about my ambitions, I'm accountable to them, even if they're not even passively interested.

Of course, if you're actively interested, let me know! I'll probably need someone to crack the whip, anyways.