The best noble lie
Plus: the hustle of making a living being you and the consequences of digital nomads for host countries
Greetings from New Hampshire. I’m here for a week for my son’s “Spring” break, which in the middle of New Hampshire means one more snowstorm, maybe two, before mud season hits. But it’s nice to be back by the wood fire and think about Spring projects.
Next week, I’m going back to Spain. I’ll climb and start work on the Cornudella property, which mainly means demolition. I’ve also given the architect I’m working with the go-ahead to replace the roof, so right now we’re finalizing those building plans to submit to the city for permitting approval.
More on that in future editions, but now, onto some brief thoughts:
#1: The hustle of making a living being you
I must admit, the first time I heard someone suggest how nice it would be to “make a living just being you,” I was into it.
I mean what could be better? You do all the things you normally want to do anyway, except they get monetized.
In this vision of economic mastery, I just write my newsletter, and you the good readers subscribe! I have interesting conversations with interesting people, and record them for a podcast! I finish and publish my memoir, it becomes a best-seller, and the whole thing leads to a virtuous cycle of wealth and fulfillment.
The promise of making a living being you is to never again do work that isn’t connected to your core passions.
Sure, there would be some additional hustle involved. Managing more income streams. Delivering content more often, and probably delivering more overall. Gotta feed the content beast.
But the real thing is to spin up the personal marketing machine as content creators do. I’d have to post to Insta more, maybe even (gasp) Tik Tok. I’d have to write lots of Twitter threads that summarize the main points from my long-form articles, and then I’d have to do a lot of engaging with others on al the various platforms. After my book comes out, I’d have to write even more Twitter threads, then reach out to podcasters and ask to be booked on their shows to talk about the themes of the book. More photos of me, more sharing, more publishing, more hustling.
I’d be a one-man marketing machine for… me.
Last year, the NY Times published a piece, Burned Out on Your Personal Brand, which I think captured some of the anxieties of this approach:
For the millions of people who monetize their online presence in some form, the downsides of this type of work are becoming more clear, especially in a moment when so many are rethinking their careers. Building a personal brand blurs the divide between an identity and a job. It puts pressure on families. It demands that every intimate experience is mined for professional content.
Don’t get me wrong: I routinely zone out on certain escapist YouTube channels, and I love following my digital nomad and climber friends on Instagram.
But I also know that the people who are monetizing their social media presence, building their personal brand, and making a living being themselves, can often feel extremely anxious and pressured to feed the algorithmic beast. In fact, I’d love to hear more from them about how they grapple with an economic model that pressures us to share more, and more often. To film our lives as we’re living them.
I love watching certain post-nomad YouTubers build their cabins and renovate their old Italian villas. But I also have seen the YouTubers who, after a few years of the weekly publishing grind, inevitably make an “I’m burned out and taking a break” video.
The most recent example I can think of is from Eva zu Beck (1.63 million subscribers on YouTube, 745,000 on Insta). Eva was traveling around Baja Mexico at the same time I was and just published a “Goodbye, for now,” video. As Eva explains, she was just burned out: “Publishing so frequently just makes me feel like I’m just going through the motions every time, like I’m not coming up with my best ideas.”
Of course, every video until the burnout video is all about the amazing digital nomad lifestyle, traveling around in the converted Landrover, meeting amazing people, seeing amazing places, living the dream. The reality, for Eva at least, was a slow-burning creep that eroded her best creative energy.
On one level, making a living just being me sounds really nice—but becoming anxious and burned out by making myself and my life into an online brand sounds absolutely horrible. It reminds me of when I was a newspaper reporter and someone suggested I should transition to being TV. I had a good stage presence and could layer on the charisma if needed. But making myself into a TV personality and being recognized while walking down the street just sounded horrible to me. Plus, I knew in my bones that everything that happened on television was essentially a superficial, dumbed-down rereading of news we were breaking in the newspaper.
When I met and visited Nate Murphy in February, I think he and his partner Dei were pleasantly surprised to hear that almost none of my income came from my newsletter or the nascent podcast I had interviewed him for a few years back. Whereas both Nate and Dei have been successful content creators for years: their personal emotional lives, Nate’s climbing, the renovation of their house in Spain. They both make great stuff and some of Nate’s videos have been particularly inspiring for me.
But I’m a long way off from what they do. About one percent of my income comes from this newsletter. Eighty-five percent (give or take) comes from doing content marketing and strategy consulting for healthcare clients in the U.S., something I almost never write about here. Another 15 percent of my income comes from rental properties I own.
Would I like the newsletter to grow and be a higher portion of my income? Sure— and you can go paid here, hint hint ;)
But honestly, it’s nice not to have my entire financial livelihood tied up in writing about my life. Besides, collecting rent is great. It’s just an asset I own that pays me money, and it is almost completely devoid of emotional investment. The same goes for owning stock—dividend income from other people running gigantic, successful companies is even lower maintenance than rental income. I love it.
So on one level, I am super envious of all the content creators out there who are able to film or write or talk about their life, and get paid to do it. At the same time, I think there’s great peace of mind in not having your life be the whole thing that is being monetized.
#2: The best noble lie
Lately, I’ve been seeing this idea everywhere: a lot of people in a whole bunch of contexts are intent on convincing us that our fates are out of our control.
Religious and faith groups would say there is a divine power in charge, that God has a plan. And I have more than a few “spiritual, not religious” friends who believe something very similar, that fate exists, and that everything happens for a reason.
There is also a strain of public thought right now intent on convincing us that almost everything is predetermined by past injustice, racism, economic inequality, the patriarchy, or some other system of oppression. In this telling, our lives and fates are also not our own—who we are and how we think, and what we do is almost entirely determined by past factors out of our control.
The more I look, the more I see some version of this idea that our fate is not our own:
In healthcare, your health and wellness are determined by the “social determinants of health,” and not your own decisions or lifestyle.
In the economy, your wealth and opportunity are determined by the past economic circumstances of your family or your community, not your own gumption, intelligence, or work ethic.
Democracy and the fates of nations themselves are determined by grand forces, geography, or the faceless march of history, and not, say, how people vote or the moral courage of individuals in leadership.
Even our own free will is an illusion, as Sam Harris has eloquently argued.
And the thing is, any one of those ideas about fate might be true.
Sam Harris might be right, we only think we have free will. Or a divine power really could have a plan for us all. Our health and wellness could be mostly out of our control, our body mass index predetermined by genetics. And the fate of our nation may be to march inevitably toward autocracy—
And maybe it really is impossible for me to transcend the circumstances of my birth.
But if all of that is the case, I opt out. I don’t want to believe it. I do not care to relinquish my fate to the fates, or to God, or to social determinants, historical forces, or even genetics. I want to believe that I have a choice and a role in all these things, even if I don’t.
What’s more? I think you should believe in your own free will, in your own capacity to change and make different decisions, in your own responsibility for yourself, your community, and your country—even if all of that is wrong. You can call it a noble lie if you want, but if it’s a lie, it’s the best one we’ve ever told.
It is the idea that we are in control of our own destinies.
I think the world will just be better if we all get on board with that. In the United States, we have a founding myth that is a close cousin to this idea. It’s the myth that anyone, no matter the circumstances of their birth, can come to this land of opportunity and make it.
I’m sure that’s less true than we would like, but no matter: it’s important that we keep up the myth, because the fact that the smart, ambitious, and talented people of the world who want to make a change for the better have more often than not wanted to come here is a kind of superpower for this country.
The same goes for everything else. It is better for our bodies to believe we are in control of them. Then we exercise and eat well. It is better for our mental health to believe we have autonomy and control. Then we meditate, exercise, go for a walk in the woods, or whatever it is. It is better for our economy if the entrepreneurs among us believe they can succeed—even if most of them won’t. It is better for our democracy if we believe we have a voice, and that our vote matters.
I wrote last week that we should be teaching our kids optimism, not cynicism—that they have the power to make a change and that they can be whoever they want to be. Because the opposite message is soul-crushing. For us, and for them.
#3: Are digital nomads good for their host countries?
I’m not an economist and can’t pretend to dissect every angle of this question, but I do think it’s important to think through the ways digital nomads are impacting their chosen locations.
On my last trip to Spain, just after I’d purchased the Cornudella property, I started to ask a local climber friend about rents in Barcelona. He’s Catalan and was happy to give me advice on the various neighborhoods—but he also bemoaned the rising rents in the city, which he attributed to the huge influx of foreigners who could afford to pay more.
The issue has been getting a lot of attention since Spain just began offering a digital nomad visa. Locals fear the influx of digital nomads could make the rent problem worse:
Last year, Barcelona-based housing activist Martí Cusó told Sifted that he blamed digital nomads for pushing up property prices, without meaningfully adding to the city: “Only spending two months a year [in a place] is not growing roots and generating community.”
But could the effect be more positive in places where rising property prices and overpopulation are less of an issue?
As I told my Catalan friend, I may contribute to pushing up rents in Barcelona, but also I just invested $50,000 to purchase a totally derelict old stone townhouse in Cornudella Montsant, one that was on the market for at least a year and had been uninhabited for possibly decades. Surely my investment in that property is an overall positive for Spain?
It probably does matter a great deal where you go, how long you stay, and how you spend your money. There’s a good reason governments throughout Europe are issuing digital nomad visas—it draws money and investment into the country.
But of course, there are downsides. Almost a decade ago, on my first trip to Lisbon, there were hundreds of old properties in dire need of refurbishment, and I thought how wonderful that Airbnb was drawing investors into the city to fix these properties up and turn them into rentals. I almost bought one myself. Today, rents and property prices in Lisbon have more than doubled, few locals live in those neighborhoods anymore, and I’m of the opinion that hundreds of Airbnb rentals in the middle of any historic city are a net negative.
I think the best us location independent workers can do is be conscious of our impact, and also simply stay longer. Slow travel is not a few weeks—it’s a few months. I suspect the investment will be worth it.
Points for the word gumption and the introspection
All well and good and I’m happy to part with the one time subscription fee I evidently made by mistake - wish you well but please do not charge me any further fees - I’m on this site s I can read and enjoy posts by my granddaughter, Alicia