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For the last year and a half, I’ve worked as a location-independent film producer at Unscripted.com. I move from one country to another every three to five weeks while working on various creative projects. I don’t have a set place to live in – I’m what some people call a “digital nomad.”
I love that I get to choose my next destination based on good weather, local festivals, and exotic cuisines. I traveled for years working odd jobs before I found a fulfilling way to make money, travel, and build my career at the same time. I don’t have it all figured out, but getting the chance to engage my wanderlust while I grow as a professional is an exciting opportunity.
Apparently, remote work is becoming quite popular. In fact, 74% of professionals have made a change to be less tied to a physical workplace. It’s fantastic to see more people taking the plunge. Coworking contributes to greater employee morale and productivity, while driving down employer operating costs.
The tricky thing is that the coworking movement is just getting started in less-developed countries. While filming in places like rural Mongolia, Colombia, Cuba, and Malaysia, I struggled to find the resources I need most. And there are always complications: power outages, political unrest, unpredictable weather, and communication barriers.
There’s little I can do to control those problems, so I focus instead on maximizing my productivity when I travel to a new place. The three most important skills I’ve learned during my time working while traveling are: 1) communicate your unshakeable needs, 2) ask for help when you need it, and 3) make time to savor the moment.
Back when I was a casual traveler, I only needed enough Internet to update my social network and blog. Now that I operate my business remotely, I need the best Wi-Fi to do my job well. I need to upload all my footage after a shoot for clients to review, or so that my footage is backed up in case I get caught with my hard drive in a thunderstorm (…this has happened). Hours of waiting for footage to upload on a sub-optimal connection can turn into days of lost productivity. My intention is to give myself the resources I need to succeed (good Internet), so that I can focus on making a good film.
Now, when I look for a new coworking space to be my next home base, I start off by messaging hosts and communicating my intention:
“My name is Ansley, and I’m a film producer. I’m looking for a place to live/work in your city next month, and your space caught my eye. Because I work online, it’s imperative that I work with a fast internet connection. Please visit speedtest.net, press the green button, and tell me what the Download and Upload speeds are. …”
People don’t always know how to measure what you value. Their response, “Our wifi is good” can mean either “The Internet exists, thanks AOL,” or, “It’s your standard 35 mbps connection.” When I state my intention, I help them to measure their resources according to my standards. This limits potential miscommunication and frustration on both ends.
When I search for a new coworking space, my priority is to give myself good internet, the resource I really need to make the best possible film. If you’re a developer, you might need a clean and quiet space with natural sunlight. Everyone has certain resources they absolutely need in order to do good work. Coworking spaces often appreciate that I’m up front with my needs so that we can focus on finding a solution. This might mean uploading overnight so that I don’t disrupt other users on the network. If a coworking space doesn’t have the resources I need, perhaps they can refer me to another local business who doesn’t advertise as widely. By communicating my needs and helping my hosts to find a solution, I get to focus on the real task at hand: making the best possible film.
As a producer, a core element of my job is to connect people. The success or failure of a project often hinges upon whether I can find interesting people to film. At the beginning of a new project, my colleague and I typically start filming in a high-traffic area during sunrise or sunset. In preparation for our film Hong Kong Strong, I arrived in Kowloon two weeks early to do location and talent scouting. Immediately, we ran into a problem: everyone that we tried to film asked that we turn the camera off.
There are many sociopolitical reasons why the Cantonese don’t like to be filmed in public. As I learned more about the culture, I realized that I needed personal introductions for every person we filmed, and that I needed help. I needed to grow my Hong Kong social network from one friend, to dozens of people in less than two weeks. A seriously daunting task.
I needed to find someone I trusted to guide me as I learned more about Hong Kong culture. I started by thinking critically about who would be most motivated to help me — friends, and fans. I built a core group of two to five Cantonese-speaking friends who helped me everyday to discover hard to access communities in Hong Kong. I also asked these new friends to introduce me to everyone they knew (including family). Lastly, I connected with as many groups as possible via Facebook, Couchsurfing, and Google. The result was astounding: my new social network introduced me to more than 200 new people, most of whom didn’t speak English.
Instead of trying to make these connections by myself, I trusted my friends and social network to help me. Because we trusted locals to introduce us to the “real” Hong Kong, the connections they helped us make resulted in a more nuanced film.
I hardly remember my first trip to Singapore. A client needed me to upload hundreds of gigabytes of footage to the cloud within three days. I researched locations with the best fiber connection in Southeast Asia, and found that Singapore has some of the best speeds. So, I found an AirBnB in the suburbs with fiber Internet, and spent the entire time glued to my computer. Yes, I made my deadline, but just barely – and I only ventured outside once for food.
Like most entrepreneurs, I struggle to put down my computer to eat, exercise, or sleep well once a deadline approaches. It’s tempting to surround myself with English-speaking expats who keep the same irregular hours. Sometimes that focus is exactly what my work needs. Still, I’ve found that once I begin to indulge in the virtual world I’ve constructed for myself, I lose motivation for my work.
You can get jaded with startup life anywhere. Whether or not you’re working on the road, don’t waste the opportunity that you’ve given yourself. Recognize that the current moment is impermanent when things get hard. Sometimes, it’s important to slow down and connect with your surroundings so that you can return to your work with a fresh perspective. The only thing preventing you from seeing the good around you is your lack of motivation to find it.
After I met my deadline, I realized I knew nothing whatsoever about Singapore. I gave myself a few hours before dawn to explore the city before my early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur. I tripped across a yawning Indian market selling fresh meat, flowers, and spices just as it started to open. I nursed a chai and absorbed the scene: women haggled, men gossiped, and a curious dog sniffed my ankle. This market spins on everyday, I realized, supporting an entire culture of people I would never encounter. I needed to make the effort to find them.
This is why I travel, I reminded myself — to stretch my perspective, to soften my expectations, and to simply witness this world. Whether you work in a coworking space down the road from home, or halfway around the world, take a moment to rediscover what it is that made you fall in love with your job.
Note: All images and videos provided by the author.
About the author
Ansley Sawyer is a nomadic travel film producer, collaborating with Brandon Li at Unscripted.com. She’s worked some odd jobs as a sailor, singer, writer, and actor, but is mostly just fascinated with finding new ways to explore the world. Find more of Ansley’s work at ansleysawyer.com, or follow her on twitter @ansleysawyer1.