The novelty of being a big city lad, strolling into a sexy London glass office with a latte in hand (as they do in the movies) doesn’t last long. By the time I was 30, on paper, I’d made it. I was working at a top television network, with a comfortable salary and business trips to Manhattan. I had a bachelor pad, bought nice clothes, and partied weekends. It was exactly what I pictured growing up, but I wasn’t happy.
The traditional outlook on life has always been to work hard, get married, buy a house, and at least for millennials, allocation of ‘fun’ is slotted in at the end, for retirement. That’s assuming we’re lucky enough to make it to our 60s. Spending the next 30+ years of my life in an office cubicle and mind-numbing marketing meetings was, to me, pure torture. I decided enough was enough.
The First Step
In 2016 I sold my things and moved to Tokyo on an English teaching visa, interning part-time as an entertainment reporter for a local paper. It was a chance to go to free gigs, make new friends, and get out there. Months later, came the big break. A friend moved to Singapore as editor of an airline magazine, and they needed a travel writer in Japan. I was now getting paid to write and explore.
The lack of English-speaking reporters in the region, at least compared to back home, meant I was able to secure a steady flow of work covering Japan. Eventually, I ditched the English teaching job to write full-time, forfeiting the visa. That was fine as I could work anywhere with a good Wi-Fi connection.
Being used to a routine, things were tough in the beginning. You never know when the next job is coming, and finding a new place to set up shop can be stressful. Things have got easier, especially post-pandemic now that digital nomads have surged (131 per cent since 2019, according to Forbes). I’ve spent extended time in Da Nang, Bali and Kuala Lumpur, meccas for remote workers, thanks to special digital nomad visas, flexible co-working spaces and value long-stay rentals and travel.
Every day isn’t coconut cocktails on the beach. I still go to an office. I make my own hours and choose when and where I want to work. I’m based between the US and the UK. I rented desks or WFH, but you’ll find me and my laptop all over the place. Mostly in coffee shops and hotel rooms. I also try to make the most of transit time that can sometimes be a challenge. For example, on the Caledonian Sleeper train to Inverness, though the purpose was to sleep, I stayed up all night to meet a last-minute deadline. A couple of weeks later I sailed the Indian Ganges on a boutique rivercruise called Uniworld. It was pretty remote, and l got frustrated with Internet speeds. Maybe it was a sign to switch off and enjoy the ride.
Though the money I earn now is far less than before, so are my outgoings. I used to live rather excessively. But now I don’t need the latest gadgets, a car, or a swanky downtown apartment. Why? Because I get plenty of enrichment on the job. One week I can be surrounded by rescued elephants in Chiang Mai. And the next I’ll be surrounded by celebrity chefs at The Dorchester in Mayfair. In a single year, I can check off more bucket list activities than one could in a lifetime. I’ve had to make a whole new list, actually. Things I’ve done: hot air ballooning, snowmobiling, and safari; interviewed Sir Richard Branson and Michelle Yeoh. I’ve even written two best-selling guidebooks.
Before leaving the rat race, my stories weren’t particularly noteworthy. Unless you’re into drunken anecdotes, but everything that’s happened in recent years would make a real page-turner of a biography. I skim my travel journals in disbelief. Best of all, I’ve been able to share many special moments with the people I care about. Working remotely means more time with loved ones and less time with Karen from advertising. It’s ironic because we all know time is finite. And yet,most people prioritise making money in the hopes of using it later to live their best lives. Think about all the things that make you happy. Travel, music, cooking, sports, spouse, kids…How much time are you dedicating to them? Are you justifying a lack of time now for more later? I’m always conscious that later often becomes never, and remember, never is the saddest thing anyone could work toward.
James Wong can be reached here.