by Ashok Amaran
I’m looking out the window now at the Andes mountains.
It’s a magnificent backdrop for the city of Santiago and makes for a stunning view framed by my window in this apartment where I’m now living with my girlfriend.
The days of winter are slowly passing while everyone I know back home enjoys summer. Three years ago I hiked these mountains on a short trip with some friends. We trekked toward the summit of Machu Picchu, a touristy destination that retains the ability to instill awe as you set foot on the sacred ground hidden atop a tall mountain peak. Machu Picchu leaves you embraced in its mysterious energy, filling you with a sense of perspective and importance within your life. That trip included deeply experiencing the culture and people, leaving me in a lasting state of wanderlust.
Afterward, I continued to travel the world, living in Paris for a few months, then London, then India, and many other countries until I found a girl I loved in Chile. I was running my app development company remotely that whole time, working with a team of twelve developers on projects for clients ranging from small businesses to government agencies. We liked to say we built mobile apps to give us a mobile lifestyle for ourselves and we ended up doing just that. This was all made possible through coworking. And more specifically, through the global coworking community that accepted me through my travels.
It wasn’t always like this, though. I remember almost four years ago, waking up in the morning at the crack of dawn, only having time to eat stale toast while holding back tears. I felt trapped in the routine of a corporate life, stuck being miserable every morning and not being able to do anything about it. I would stare out the window, my view then very different: the grey parking lot from my cubicle desk. I spent my spare energy wishing for anything but the life I was living.
After a few months, I ended up meeting an Angel. Well, more specifically, I met Angel, the owner of a collaborative coworking space in Fort Collins, CO called Cohere. This was how my coworking journey began.
I walked into that eclectic space in Fort Collins and took note of the tables handcrafted in curved shapes, beautiful transparent whiteboards that let you see the brick walls behind them, retro style couches, and a cozy little loft with a napping pod. There was fresh brewed coffee, tea, and some homemade apple dessert that Angel had brought in that day. I was taking in all the small details and felt incredible joy at having found the community based in this gorgeous space. I joined their night owl plan immediately, which allowed me to focus on my own projects after the normal workday was done. I returned home that night feeling like I had discovered the secret ingredient for meaningful, purposeful, and passionate work.
Though I started off only going one day a week, those Wednesday nights were an opportunity to mix and mingle with the passionate creatives, freelancers, and remote workers who passed through the doors of Cohere. Within the first week, after the members came to know I was an app developer, I was referred to a project in California by a Cohere member. After a month, I had an app development company that was making decent money and receiving requests from numerous contacts.
Despite having a good influx of clients, I couldn’t bring myself to make the leap to becoming 100% self-employed. This was shortly after one of the largest economic crises in America, and the prospect of leaving a high-paying, secure, and respected job seemed irresponsible, despite having met so many passionate freelancers and entrepreneurs in the coworking space who encouraged me. The trouble was the idea of freedom for me. I realized that leaving a job because I hated it was “freedom from” something, but I didn’t yet see how it would give me “freedom for” other things. I enjoyed being part of a community of passionate individuals, but there wasn’t a purposeful drive to work towards something until I met Chris Guillebeau.
In his book, The Art of Non-Conformity, I got the impression this man was an Indiana Jones with wifi: a writer who had successfully made a living outside the confines of a cubicle. He was on an adventure of his own creation to visit all 193 countries in the world and he had built an inspiring community around his dream. Just this part of his story would normally be enough to impress, but it wasn’t this part that touched me so deeply. It was that he was doing this endeavor after having spent six years volunteering in Africa. After learning about true struggles and hardships in life, he started living his life by three mantras:
1) Live life as an adventure.
2) Be part of a community.
3) Be of service to the world.
This was a man who was living unconventionally for all the right reasons.
Some time later, on an October day with snow lightly beginning to fall on the trees, I got in my car and headed up to Cheyenne, WY, to meet this inspiring individual.
There I found six people including Chris sitting around a coffee table inside a Barnes and Noble, one of his book tour stops. He said he was happy to only see five other people because he was getting 200+ at his other stops including Denver the previous night and it was refreshing to be able to dive deeper into our stories.
I ended up telling Chris that I was running a relatively successful app development company on the side of my stable job and I was confused as to whether I should take the leap to running the company full-time. He told me something that has stuck with me still to this day and provides me with the inspiration I need to continue pursuing my passions and following my dreams even in the face of immense difficulties. He said that most people think they’re asking for advice, but what they are really asking for is permission. He said I wasn’t really asking for his take on my particular situation, but rather hoping to get someone to say it was OK to do what I knew I wanted to do. He made me realize in that moment I was waiting for someone to say “Yes! Do it!” rather than simply taking action. He didn’t need to say anything else.
A month later, I was in my manager’s office with a two-week notice in hand and I never looked back.
Most people think they’re asking for advice,
but what they are really asking for is permission.
While this is the story of how I discovered the magic of coworking, I tell it now because it’s part of a larger journey. I would soon learn that there were others like me who not only found coworking, but also saw the greater connections that were possible within the global coworking community. Coworking only becomes magical when you are able to embrace everything that is possible from being a coworker.
* * *
Halfway across the country in NYC, a brilliant artist, designer, poet, writer, and entrepreneur was about to quit his six-figure financial career. He and his wife were embarking on a long journey called the “Rise of the Cubicle Farmer” where they were going to meet with passionate creatives in coworking spaces around the country. It was during their trip I would meet AJ Leon and his wife Melissa as they passed through Colorado, and through them I got another up-close example of how people pursue their dream of traveling the world while doing purposeful work.
AJ and Melissa are self-identified misfits; their company is even called Misfit Inc. In 2010, when traveling across the country on a 45-day road trip, they had a dream that they not only wanted to travel and work, but that the work needed to leave a dent in the universe. Their work was going to be filled with incredible amounts of passion and love such that anyone who came across them would feel it.
They helped coin the term workshifting and the notion that “Anywhere is my office.” It’s a seductive idea, that any location can be turned into one’s workplace. But their real achievements were in embodying the essential principles that Chris had chosen to live his life by: adventure, community and service.
In the past four years, they have traveled by RV around the country, lived abroad, and gave talks in Asia. They have created a fanatical community of like-minded misfits who come together annually for a Misfit Conference (http://aj-leon.com/misfit-con-2014/) in a city that could be considered a misfit itself: Fargo. They dedicate a month each year to take on a humanitarian project pro-bono in an attempt to give back in service to the world. These include a windmill they built in Kenya and the world’s first philanthropic coffee-roaster in Laos, Jhai Coffeehouse.
Their story proves that travel doesn’t have to happen for the sake of tourism but can include meaningful and impactful projects.
While all of this sounds very ideal, the logistics of traveling while working can sometimes be anything but. There are numerous practical considerations that need to be made in order to live this dream full-time.
I was able to catch up with another incredible entreprenuer I met on this path who explained some of these pitfalls. Her name is Libby Tucker, and she’s a startup strategist & global entreprenuer. She has lived in numerous countries including Hungary, Nicaragua, Argentina while coworking and building startups. She refers to these as Anywhere Startups because they are created with the express purpose of being able to manage them on the go, living and working from anywhere, and creating the personal freedom to engage with the local culture. She encourages everyone to literally “Live Work Anywhere” and teaches people how to do just that.
It’s not all conceptual. The first thing Libby mentioned were the main on-the-ground necessities of traveling while working no matter where you decide to be. You can think of these things as the new Indiana Jones’ tools of the trade: wifi, power outlets, noise canceling headphones, and a laptop and charger. These four things give us immense power: take your laptop and charger to a coworking space anywhere in the world and you can easily plug right back into your work.
The tricky parts of working while traveling are when unforeseen circumstances arise. Libby mentioned to me a few things she’s run into:
1) Closing times at coffee shops, coworking spaces or public areas you are trying to work at: make sure you are able to work for the time you expect to before you sit down.
2) Seeking out fast wifi, not just any wifi. When you travel regularly, you’ll soon realize that having wifi doesn’t necessarily mean you can get much done. Many places will have the slowest internet plan and it will be even slower when many people are using it. Always check the speeds of the wifi network before deciding to work somewhere. Nomadic workers will often have the scoop on the places with the fastest networks.
3) Noise-canceling headphones as opposed to regular headphones are critical when working in public spaces, even coworking spaces. A very good one will help you to be understood while you are talking in a noisy environment.
4) Be aware of places where the power isn’t always on. Some countries like Costa Rica have occasional power outages and if that happens, so much for your laptop or wifi.
For these considerations, Libby’s recommendation was that the best possible situation for working while traveling was to either find a great local coworking space which you can regularly rely on, or stay in an apartment where you can control the internet and power.
I’m currently living in Santiago, Chile for a few months and have an apartment where I have the fastest internet I need, power supply, and control over the quietness of my space. Now it’s easier to plan the type of work I engage in at home so I never interrupt my work flow with clients. But it can get lonely, and being abroad is no time for loneliness. That’s why I head to the coworking space.
* * *
The purpose of these stories, including my own, is not to boast; it’s an attempt to inspire and enlighten you and other coworkers around the globe of all the possibilities available in terms of travel and purposeful work. I wrote an article three years ago as I began this journey about one of the least used but most incredible perks of being a coworker: the Coworking Visa program. It’s a free program you have access to as a member of a coworking space, and it typically gets you 3 days of free access at any other space within the program. There are currently over 450 spaces listed in the program on the Global Coworking Wiki.
You can experience what it felt like through my eyes to use this program as I visited Jacob and Susan of Office Nomads in the beautiful city of Seattle: Coworking in the Emerald City. One of the fascinating parts of this experience, as I ventured to Seattle and further down the West Coast, was seeing coworking culture blooming in so many cities.
The only trouble with the Coworking Visa program is that it can be hit or miss. The experience at Office Nomads for me was incredibly inspiring and I met numerous connections including another app developer. However, I also visited spaces on my travels through California where I didn’t feel like I fit in.
One thing you learn quickly when visiting many coworking spaces is that each place has a unique community with a different vibe. If the vibe doesn’t resonate, then it is not likely going to be a smooth or enjoyable experience. Also, not all spaces have a specific process for handling traveling coworkers on the Coworking Visa program. One time I arrived at a coworking space in San Jose where the person at the front desk had not heard of the Visa Program and didn’t know how to check me in. I was able to use the space because they offered a free day pass, but the awkwardness had dashed the possibility of feeling comfortable enough to try to make meaningful connections in the space.
It’s worth joining a community that suits you. You also get a chance to be one of the people who shares in the success of everyone else and contributes back to a collaborative ecosystem. Traveling between spaces becomes tricky because we don’t have much context but still need to find a space where we can fit in to the established community.
Thankfully there’s a new service called CoPass which addresses this exact issue.
I talked with CoPass co-founder Eric van den Broek who is based in Paris. He described to me how the vision came about as an extension of the coworking space he was building in Paris. He realized there was a great need to network spaces together so there could be shared value among the members and the space owners. I quickly realized that Eric was visionary in the way he described things because it was always about the greater good, and not about trying to sell his service. Eric seemed motivated simply to inform people about the magic behind coworking. His passion was perceptible even over VoIP; during our Skype call he described his philosophy of life to me in terms of this magic.
He said life is sort of like a magic card game. In this game of life, we collect these magic cards through our experiences. Every person, every experience, is a card. We may collect a card that is for an opportunity to connect with someone well known, or we may collect a card that helps us become more well known by speaking at an event. We could give cards to people we help and acquire cards from people who help us. The more cards we have in this game, the more experiences we are able to have. Someone may seem lucky with opportunities they have, but rather it could be viewed as them simply having acquired and played many cards. Coworking has a unique way of freely supplying the community with many cards that the members can play. This ends up turning into a powerful exchange of opportunities as everyone in the community grows together and learns to play the game better.
This analogy is a wonderful way of describing the radical collaboration that happens within coworking spaces and the value that members get out of them. It also applies to life as it inspires the notion of connection for the sake of connection. We never know when the next person we meet will be giving us another magic card. We start staying open to these connections and slowly acquire more and more opportunities.
This magic is felt in what CoPass offers. It’s described as a global membership that lets you access a network of independent coworking spaces, fab labs, hacker spaces and any type of collaborative space. Your subscription gives you a certain amount of “credit” within the system that you spend at any coworking space. All of a sudden you are opened up to a wide network of coworking spaces around the world to visit. That alone should be enough to give you wanderlust.
CoPass also features something to help you choose a space based on its feel, and though that may sound vague, it can to some degree be quantified and communicated. When you look up a space through their platform, the first thing you see aren’t the general details, but rather tags of what people have mentioned about the space, including tips from Foursquare. All of these details curate the vibe of the space. It becomes much easier to feel which space resonates the most with you.
The biggest novelty of the platform, though, is CoPass Hosts. CoPass Hosts enables coworkers to host traveling members. Similar to Couchsurfing, this may include staying at a member’s house or it may simply mean having someone to show you around town. This provides the possibility for direct engagement and connection with other members of coworking spaces.
This was the one bridge that was left uncrossed by the Coworking Visa Program and many other attempts to link coworking spaces together. As members host other members, over time we start to build a genuine global coworking community. We see the value in other spaces because we see the human faces behind them. We will start to then appreciate that there is always a friendly space to drop into while traveling, collecting more of those magic cards and having a deeper experience in every new city we visit.
* * *
As we get to know our fellow coworkers in spaces around the world, we start to realize we are all made up of independent workers from industries as diverse as technology, media, art, education, and science. These “new workers” don’t have a 9-5 schedule but represent close to one third of the current job market in the US and is expected to double in the next decade.
These people are able to take control of their life, make a living doing what they love, and are motivated to share with their community. They surround themselves with people who are as motivated as they are and it helps to inspire and uplift everyone else. They are professionals who are passionate about their craft. They strive to do their best work and thrive when the work has deeper purpose and meaning behind it.
It is because of all of us new workers in coworking spaces across the world that all these opportunities are now available to travel, connect, and have a meaningful impact. Take advantage!
In the same spirit as Chris, AJ and Melissa, Libby, Eric, and so many other passionate coworkers who have made traveling a meaningful part of their life and work:
1) Create your own adventure.
2) Engage and meet coworkers from other spaces.
3) Give back in service to your community and the world.
And afterwards, share your experience to inspire others to do the same.