How a family bankruptcy pushed me towards becoming a digital nomad

Suvarchala Narayanan December 2, 2016

I’m often asked how I ended up as a nomad worker. Far from being an act of reckless courage and foresight, my journey of becoming a digital nomad was a purely accidental one. And I owe a huge part of it to a family bankruptcy.

I was 16, completing my A Level at a boarding school in England, and was excited about going to law school. But that was not to be. When I came back home to Mumbai for the holidays, my mum, who came to pick me up from the airport, broke the news in the car on our way home that we were now broke and homeless. “But, hey, we still had the car, so that’s a blessing, right?” she said, optimistic as ever.

In hindsight, my family going broke was a blessing. It shattered the illusion of security and exposed life for what it was — a capricious, ever-changing siren where uncertainty was the only certainty  

I start my story with this incident, because it was precisely at this point that I turned from a potential lifelong corporate lawyer to a flash-jobber who would never have a proper CV, never attend a job interview, and never have a visiting card, because whatever she put on it would be irrelevant in some time. Furthermore, the spirit of adventure inherent in my mother’s reframing of a very dire situation as a positive one would become the core of my own attitude towards working and living. For, being a digital nomad is less about Instagram-worthy pics (though those are fun too!) and more about embracing uncertainty and being a lifelong learner.

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My Master’s program – ITP at NYU, aka, Hogwarts for Adults, where we learnt by attempting the unknown everyday

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” — so said Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu  

In hindsight, my family going broke was a blessing. It shattered the illusion of security and exposed life for what it was — a capricious, ever-changing siren where uncertainty was the only certainty. A shift like this breaks your unquestioned paradigms, questions your identity and your sense of complacency that you know how the world works. From here, you get a chance to create your own paradigm of life, work and everything else. This destruction of old paradigms and the continual recreation of new ones lie at the heart of a nomad’s journey (and I fervently believe, the future of work).

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” — so said Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

The following paradigm shifts have proven to be the bedrock of my own adventures

Embrace a fluid identity

Conventional thought teaches us the idea of one thing for your whole life — that one job, one role, one identity. Being a digital nomad challenges that approach. Here, the emphasis is on deep diving into a variety of experiences and works, learning on the go and reinventing oneself.

My own nomadic work experiences have included being a salesperson for a cultural workshop company, a backup dancer, an actress, an interaction designer, an organic farmer, a journalist, and currently, someone who works in fintech.

Here, the emphasis is on deep diving into a variety of experiences and works, learning on the go and reinventing oneself  

An integral part of working across different roles and experiences is getting used to the discomfort of being a beginner many times. The fear that comes with a new challenge and the accompanying insecurities of learning by doing are always worth the payoff of getting skilled at something new. Plus, there’s the confidence that no matter what confronts you, you’ll find a way to figure it out.

Fall in love with continuous learning

This is one of the secret sauces of the gig worker. Learning goes from becoming a limited time activity in your early years to a continually evolving experience.

My Master’s thesis visual, representing the shift in the Human Lifecycle
My Master’s thesis visual, representing the shift in the human lifecycle

Learning exists in a myriad places. Apart from a hand-on Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, my education mainly stems from books, online courses (Lynda.com, Stanford Online, Coursera) podcasts, TED Talks, workshops, meetups and conversations. And, instead of restricting myself to a particular subject or field, my approach has been to be curious and devour knowledge from many disciplines, even those that seem to have no direct correlation to anything. From entreprenurial summits to philosophy meetups to Maker hackathons, all of these learnings have found their way into my work and ideas. Cross-disciplinary, agile learning gives us the freedom to try new things and opens up a world of varied work opportunities.

This is one of the secret sauces of the gig worker. Learning goes from becoming a limited time activity in your early years to a continually evolving experience  

A transmedia workshop and masterclass in Geneva
A transmedia workshop and masterclass in Geneva
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The Power of Youth Summit in Bangalore, where entrepreneurs from all over the world met to learn and share their knowledge

Cultivate communities wherever you go

I’ll go into this one in more detail in a later article, because communities or tribes are at the heart of a truly fulfilling digital nomad experience. There are few things as growth-inducing as surrounding yourself with people who are smarter and more experienced than you. Apart from the “learning on steroids” that comes from being around them, these communities often come to signify “home” — islands of rootedness, where you are accepted for who you are, while also pushing you to be your best self. There are innumerable communities around the world, organised around purpose, goals, interests, vocations, and ideas. I will explore these in detail in a future edition.

A New York minute
A New York minute
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Lab of the mind: Journalist and bio-hacker Quinn Norton’s class combining technology and neuroscience at ITP, NYU
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“I think as an artist. You have to reinvent yourself everyday” — Damien Hirst

This story was updated at 1:00pm, December 2


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