I don’t have an office anymore. You know, like a place in a building, with its own door and chair and internet connection and phone lines and locker and Rolodexes. I worked in one for ten years, while I had one of the biggest online publishing companies in Romania. I guess ten years is the maximum lifespan for an office in my system.
Now, I work anywhere. I named this lifestyle “digital nomading”. I don’t really know if “nomading” is a word, because my spellchecker is complaining big time, with a red and kinda flashy line underneath it. But I’m gonna use it anyway.
Being a digital nomad means I’m working pretty much in coffee shops. Or at home. Or in the park. Or in airports. But, most of the time, it’s coffee shops. I usually get there when they just opened the place. I take a cup of tea and a bottle of water, plug my laptop in, wire my iPhone and iPad to it, and start doing stuff. Checking email, writing blog posts, coding iPhone apps or sketching and rehearsing my next workshop.
Every once in a while I stop and start to look around. People are coming in and going out, sit at their tables sipping their coffees or eating their sandwiches. Sometimes I spot some business meetings, with two very tense parties trying to get the best deal out of each other. Sometimes I gaze at teenagers making out, because, you know, they can’t get a room yet. Sometimes there is this classy lady reading a magazine or just staring at the pages blindly while letting the music fill her up. Nice images.
But, as much as I would like to stick to the images only, sooner or later I have to accept the fact that I’m more than just images. Namely, a flesh and blood human being, with very basic needs. After a few hours, my digestive system is done with the tea and water, and there is this overflow inside me, if you know what I mean. In much simpler words, I have to take a leak.
But that creates a problem. A real problem. You know, I usually get the best place in the coffee shop, the one near the handiest power outlet, and with the best view. That’s why I’m getting there just after they opened the place. If I just take my stuff and put it in the backpack, go to the toilet, do what a man’s gotta do and come back, I may find my best seat taken. Actually, it happened a few times, in the beginning. And that’s frustrating. And unproductive.
So, I decided it’s time to solve this problem once and forever. You know, a repeatable, effective and productive solution. We’re productive guys, so let’s solve this productivity issue.
And the moment I took this decision I realized I can’t do it only by myself. The real solution was bringing somebody else into the picture. Like, to ask somebody else to look after my belongings while I was out. It was by far the only manageable solution in that specific context.
But believe me, this was a very, very difficult thing to do. At least for me. I was never too good with relationships. Especially with casual, coffee shop, emergency relationships. But I also knew I have to do this.
Once I decided what I’m going to do, I begun to work on the “how am I going to do it”.
For starters, I started to look at the people in the coffee shop with a different eye. It wasn’t just the “how nice these people are” kind of look, but also “would they agree to look after my belongings for 5 minutes?” kinda of look. The pretty lady with a kid may not be a good solution. Too busy. Oh, maybe the two blondes with half a kilo of jewelry on each arm? Neah, two busy searching for available males. Maybe this businessman on the next table? Yeah, perhaps.
And what exactly should I say to the other person? “I’m going to take a leak, can you watch my computer for a while?”. Nah, too straightforward. “I’m gonna be out for five minutes, can you be so kind to look after my belongings? I’m extremely grateful, thank you”. Neah, too precious. I even started to type out a script for myself in a text editor. From long experience, I knew that you have to be prepared when the emergency strikes. And a pressured bladder is quite an emergency.
After a few trials and errors with the opening text and some observation exercises, one sunny Wednesday, I took the risk. No more packing my stuff, rushing to the toilet, doing my thing and then rushing back to the coffee shop, only to see my seat taken. No, sir. Let’s get out into the wild and ask for some help.
I stood up, went straight to the table I’ve been observing for some time, and started to talk. I must have babbled big time because I clearly remember the eye of the lady (yes, first time was a lady) staring at me with surprise and a little bit of fear, while I was repeating for the fifth time “I have to go out for a few minutes, can you look after these for me?”. Eventually, she understood and accepted gladly: “But of course, no problem”.
I ran to the toilet, washed my hands and then rushed back in. Everything was in its place. I thanked to the lady and she smiled at me. I made my first connection.
From that point on, I practiced this approach each and every time my biological mechanism was asking for his rights. I gradually became better at this. I needed only a few seconds to know which one of the people in the coffee shop will be willing to help. I also started to diversify my conversational opening lines.
And one day something amazing happened. I started a conversation with the other person. She seemed to be English, so I asked her if she was waiting for her plane. “Actually, yes”, she said with a touch of surprise. “How did you guess?”. And then we started to really talk. At the end, we exchanged Facebook and Twitter ids. Another time there was a man who was working just like me and we shared my power outlet. And another time it was a guy I knew from the industry who happened to be in the same coffee shop for some time.
A small, but very consistent bond was created each time I stood up, approached the table, smiled and asked if they could watch my stuff. Deep down, people love to be helpful. They smiled at me politely at first, and then, when they realized I needed them, they were actually caring and observing. When I got back and thanked them, they were somehow relieved but happy.
It’s What Makes Us Vulnerable
The biggest lesson I learned by being a digital nomad was not about productivity. I got that covered anyway. It was about relationships. Simple, unexpected and honest relationships.
Because, you know, most of the time, when I read about relationships, I have to face those big words like “commitment”, “empowering”, “gratitude” and so on. Big words are nice. Impressive. But they are not very helpful. Not when you’re in a simple, biological situation. When all you want is to take a leak and still be sure that your stuff is taken care of. In that case, you have to open up, be honest and give the other person some control over your belongings. And hope they’ll agree. And deliver. That’s all. That’s where real connections are created.
It’s not our strengths that are creating valuable relationships. At most, our strengths can make a relationship survive when bad times are coming. But our true, meaningful and useful relationships are created by our vulnerabilities. And by the genuine need to accept and expose them. I can hardly imagine a bigger vulnerability than the one created by an almost exploding bladder, in the middle of a crowded mall. You’re so powerless and cornered and desperate. You gotta solve this fast. You gotta take some risks and put out some trust, otherwise things may literally explode.
This small exercise of opening up and practicing a little bit of trust each and every time I have to take a leak at “work” became, as strange as it may seem, one of the biggest highlights of my days as a digital nomad. Because I know now that not only I will solve this in an effective and productive way, but, what’s even more important, I may end up with some new friends too. :)