Q&A With Pieter Levels
Foreword by Marty
A digital nomad utilises technology to design a lifestyle that allows them to live and work wherever they want - be it from home, the internet cafe, on the beach, and often from the other side of the world. Digital nomads pride themselves in being able to accomplish tasks and goals that used to traditionally take place in a single stationary workplace.
I first stumbled upon Pieter online, funnily enough! I came across his blog and continued to follow it with great intrigue. This was followed by a call with Pieter, and we chatted about the way he lived his life on the road. He travels to work from anywhere, starts up small tech companies and only owns what fits in his backpack.
We’ve kept in touch online, and I recently got down to asking him a bit more about the ‘Digital Nomad’ lifestyle he leads.
When did you decide to throw on your backpack and go 'nomad'? Was rejecting the 9-5 working life something you‘ve always dreamed of doing?
From early on in my life, I was never really into the 9 to 5. I was always doing creative stuff. When I was 8 I was playing with our first computer (a 486DX2 with Windows 3.1) and from then on I‘ve been doing graphic design as a teenager and electronic music in my early 20s. I was kicked out of high school because I was so incredibly unmotivated by what was being taught there.
I didn‘t want to be a total loser, so I worked really hard to manage to get into university without having the right high school degree. I then studied business in university because I thought people who studied business would start, well, businesses. But then nobody did that and everybody went to wear a suit all day, follow orders and work for Corporate Sell-out 9-to-5 Inc. So I was very shocked by that.
My worst fear had been that I‘d become that. So I knew I had to figure out something that made money so I didn‘t have to get a job after I graduated, I started trying lots of stuff. I tried making tech blogs, and it paid a little bit, but it was not very fun. Since I was making music and it was relatively successful, I started uploading that to YouTube around 2008. It started getting millions of views (one of my first videos is here). Then YouTube started paying me money for that and suddenly I had enough cashflow to not have to get a job.
So I was making 2,000 to 5,000 euros a month from that. But meanwhile life became a little boring. Everyone around me now had 9 to 5 jobs, and so I‘d just sit at home working. I had a relatively succesful business, but this wasn‘t really a life, was it? I had NEVER heard about digital nomads, and I think if I did back then, I thought it‘d be somewhat superficial and pretentious. But I had traveled before. I‘d studied in South Korea in 2009 with two of my Dutch friends and we always said we‘d go back.
One of those friends said asked me “you can work anywhere right?“, I said “yes“ and he answered “then why are you still here?“, I was like “oh, right“.
I was already pretty minimal, but then I went further and sold all my stuff, got a small backpack with just a laptop and some clothes. It was hard to give up my rental apartment in the center of Amsterdam, because it was very hard to get it and I was living there with my best friend. But I thought, sometimes you need to destroy shit to get better shit. So then I flew to Asia in April of 2013. I stayed around there for 9 months. I lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. And to my surprise I was able to work well there, actually better than at home. Less procrastination and more fun in my daily life. I could meet people from different cultures, everything was simply much cheaper than the crazy expensive Amsterdam, and I had a really great time. I returned for a few months and went away for another year in 2014. That second tour I lived in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia. I did miss my friends home but they also visited me many times.
Now I‘ve pretty much been traveling for 2 years full-time. I haven‘t had a house in that time, no lease, no rent, no mortgage and still just a backpack.
What piece of advice would you give to the aspiring digital nomad out there?
I‘d say try this. It‘s not about laptops on a beach at all, nor about laptops near the pool. It‘s mostly having the freedom to go anywhere. And that‘s EXTREMELY liberating. Any society, be it in the West or the East, has strong pressures on you to behave/become/be a certain way. Which obviously has it‘s foundations over time, e.g. you need to get a good job, start a family and get a mortgage for better odds of survival. But with the internet you can survive as long as there‘s money coming in and you can get it out of the ATM and buy food with it. That changes a lot of things. There‘s nothing wrong NECESSARILY with how we‘ve been leading our societies up until now, but you‘re free to try out another way of living.
And I say “try“, because you don‘t need to CHANGE everything and go do this. Just try it a little bit. See if it works for you. Maybe you can do it half-half? Live half the year in your country, and half the year go travel and work? Why not? Because traveling perpetually is tiring, psychologically taxing and can drive you insane. Like mentally insane. It did that too me and many people and it‘s a very intense experience to be alone for so long in strange cultures.
So yes, try it!
A lot of people would work for long periods of time, to then travel afterwards. Do you believe that in combining the two you‘re inspiring more people to take on the digital nomadic lifestyle?
Yes! I think the way we structure our lives now is very weird. The work life balance is hard to find. We spend most of our time working for other people in offices in cities where we‘re overpaying on rent and then we go home to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix and in the weekend we binge drink ourselves to death while we whine how “life didn‘t really work out for us“. Then 2 weeks a year, we‘re allowed to go on holiday. It‘s bullshit. It‘s not okay. It‘s a prison.
Combining the two means finding environments where you can live and work best. Which means being most happy with the people you love, and most productive at the work (you hopefully love). It‘s not necessarily about travel, as it‘s about finding those spots in the world best for you. And that‘s what I‘m trying to help you find with Nomad List.
What's next for you?
I‘m launching a new startup called Startup Retreats soon which tries to get San Francisco and other venture-backed startups to move their offices remotely for a few weeks. We have 50+ retreats all over the world, from Mexico to Bali to the Philippines, where we let startups work, guarantee great internet and optionally have staff on site to help them with whatever they need.
It‘s the next step in my mission to get everyone to work anywhere.
Anything you'd like to tell readers about? Projects, friends, books, etc?
My friend Youjin Do is creating a documentary about digital nomads. On her own, she‘s flying around the world now to interview digital nomads and leaders of remote companies to capture this movement on film. She is crowdfunding it, and she really needs your donations to make it possible. So if you like to support something, please donate and check out the trailer below!
Follow Pieter on the next stages of his nomadic journey by following his blog levels.io - and more frequently, his Twitter: @levelsio
You can also check out some of his fantastic startups here: Nomad List, Remote | OK, Startup Retreats, Taylor and Go Fucking Do It.
Images from Hubud, Bali kindly provided by Franz Navarette.