Maddie Johnson is a freelance journalist, full-time writer, digital nomad, and founder of the Fresh Coast. With an insatiable curiosity about the world and a keen eye for detail, she has covered topics ranging from sports and social issues to travel and lifestyle.
She also collaborates with travel brands and tourism boards, crafting content that highlights destinations responsibly, and runs a small social enterprise that works to cultivate a vibrant and sustainable future for the Great Lakes region through community-building initiatives and environmental stewardship.
When she is not travelling to distant locations, she is embracing depth at her home in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. We connected with Maddie to learn more about her journey to work/life on the road.
Wander: What inspired you to become a digital nomad? How did you get started on this journey?
Maddie: I don’t think it was intentional, at least not at first. I’ve always had this innate sense of curiosity and a desire for freedom and flexibility, so needless to say following the rules wasn’t exactly my strong suit. The idea that there are things we’re ‘supposed’ to do never really resonated with me. Not even in a defiant way, it just went right over my head. So instead of heading straight for university, I packed a bag and headed straight to the airport—solo. I know it’s cliche, but holy shit did it ever change me. I became captivated by the world and everyone in it very quickly.
However, my career itself didn’t start until years later. I did eventually go to university, and in my final year we were required to complete an internship. The conditions were vague, so, cheeky as I am, I took it as an opportunity to connect with an English-speaking travel magazine based in San Jose, Costa Rica.
My only assignment for the six weeks I was there was to immerse myself into the country and culture and write about my experiences. Easy, right? I remember one morning clear as day. I had just come back from being absolutely humbled during a sunrise surf session. Still smiling like an idiot, I snagged a fresh mango from a fruit stand on the way. I was writing a feature about the boutique hostel I was staying at, so I ordered a cup of Costa Rican coffee and settled into a spot on the covered patio. I opened my laptop and got to work.
That was it. That was all I ever wanted.
I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but every time I hit a roadblock after that day—and especially throughout Covid—I remember that moment and know exactly what I am working for.
How do you balance work and travel? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
I think the hardest thing for me to navigate is remembering that just because I can work from anywhere, doesn’t mean I should. I find it really challenging to turn off completely. With my office—aka my laptop—with me wherever I go, it’s hard to separate work from life and vice versa. But that’s not always a bad thing. My work is part of my life, so I don’t always need to separate the two. Having a job you don’t feel the need to escape from is a great feeling.
That said, I still think it’s important to have a work-life balance just like anyone, and setting boundaries for yourself and actively choosing days off has helped me do so.
How do you stay productive and motivated while working remotely?
Honestly, once you establish a routine—whatever that routine is to you—it’s not actually that difficult. It’s funny because I never wanted to work a nine-to-five, and I’m not going to pretend that I do now either, but I find if I set working hours and stick to them, it’s easy to stay productive no matter where in the world I happen to be. Now, there will always be times that I break that —especially if the sun is shining and almost always when the swell is good—but setting those standards and expectations for myself off the hop helps me determine when it’s OK to let them go.
Has your travel style or approach changed over time?
I like to travel slow, I think that’s what really drove me to become location-independent in the first place. I never understood how someone could experience a place or connect with its culture in only a few short days. I understand that not everyone has the luxury of staying longer, so I know I am fortunate in that way.
But to me, travel and vacation are two very different things, and when I travel, I do so in a way that allows me to soak up every ounce of a situation or destination. I don’t think that has necessarily changed over the years, if anything it’s just become more prominent. There is so much to see and experience in the world that it’s hard to not keep going, to not keep chasing that distance, but the depth you get from staying put somewhere isn’t to be scoffed at either.
I think there’s this misconception about ‘digital nomads’ that they have to live this eternally nomadic lifestyle. But what I like most about being able to work from anywhere is just that, I can do it from anywhere. It’s the choice behind it that sets us apart. Whether it’s two days, two months or two years, where my office is, is up to me. And I just incorporate that into the way I travel.
Or maybe I’m just a terrible nomad, who knows?!
What are some unexpected or surprising experiences you’ve had on the road?
The one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how quickly I can feel so connected to somewhere new. When you open yourself up to the world, you allow truly incredible connections to unfold. It’s remarkable how the human spirit can adapt and find a sense of belonging in unfamiliar surroundings. I mean it, when you embrace the unknown and step outside of your comfort zone, you create opportunities for personal growth and memorable interactions that stick with you for life.
Outside of that, you kind of learn to expect and even embrace the unexpected, and things stop surprising you as much. That said, I am also very fortunate that I haven’t had too many experiences where my safety has been questioned, either.
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about the digital nomad lifestyle?
This is a great question, and a few things come to mind.
First and foremost, it’s this idea people have that digital nomads are always on vacation or that our lives are super exciting all of the time. That’s far from true, and unfortunately, I think social media is a big contributor. I still face the same challenges and stressors that other workers do. I still need to meet deadlines and attend meetings and grow my clientele, but nobody wants to see me sitting on a crowded bus desperately trying to get some work done, or waking up at the wee hours of the morning to get on a client call in a completely different time zone.
That said, the lifestyle for sure has its perks, and I will choose the struggles of wifi connectivity over conformity any day. Which leads me to another big misconception and that’s the belief people have that this lifestyle is unattainable for them. Every time I hear someone say, ‘You’re so lucky’ or ‘I wish I could do that,’ makes me frustrated because they can, and it breaks my heart that they have been taught otherwise. Sure, I worked hard to establish a career that is independent of a location, but I’m not special. And thanks to technological advances (and Covid), there are more and more jobs available that can be done from anywhere. Ultimately, it comes back to that freedom of choice and choosing something that fulfills you.
Lastly, the misconception that digital nomads exclusively live in beautiful, tropical destinations, far from home and all their loved ones.
Although technically, I think the term digital nomad does literally mean someone who travels far from home and works remotely. So in that way, I am a bit of a phoney. Because I love home. But what I love most about the digital nomad lifestyle, at least the way I live it, is that it allows me to soak up my culture and community wholeheartedly when I am home.
Building a lifestyle that prioritizes LIFE has allowed me to connect more deeply with myself and my surroundings, no matter where in the world I am. So some of my favourite trips and experiences haven’t actually been all that far from home, after all.
What are some of your favourite destinations to work from?
I am a sucker for anywhere that instills creativity, and I’ve had that happen in just about every corner of the world. My inspiration stems from my surroundings, so while yes, working remotely does require a certain level of discipline no matter where you are, I will actively choose places that foster this sense of expressiveness.
And nine times out of 10 that is a result of the community more than the destination. Whether it be a bungalow overlooking the beach, an A-frame in the woods or a bright and eclectic craft brewery in the middle of a city, my surroundings don’t matter as much as who I surround myself with.
That said, destination-wise, more often than not, you’ll find me somewhere where at the end of the day I can shut my laptop, suck back an ice-cold cerveza and surf until the sun has long since set. The more off the beaten path, the better, because you know the people you are going to meet on the other side are worth the encounter. As a mentor once told me: the extra mile is never crowded.