If there is one big thing I learned from my own nomadic years as well as from the subjects of this series, it’s this: freedom takes a tremendous amount of focus and discipline, and Michael Pinatton is an excellent example in this sense.
He lives – at least for now – in the picturesque beach town of Da Nang, Central Vietnam, with a wide sandy beach, plenty of fancy bars, restaurants and the wild, unspoiled Son Thra Peninsula literarily at his doorstep. And still manages to keep his focus on work!
Michael wakes at 6 every morning, goes to a café and works for at least three hours before even raising his eyes to catch a glimpse of the clear blue sea. Lunch, then more work until evening, when he sometimes calls it a day and takes a stroll on the beach or a beer in a pub.
Unlike others whose digital nomadic careers have been triggered by Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hours Workweek”, Michael finds inspiration in “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and admits that he works 50 hours every week to achieve his goal.
Michael is a writer, the second one I’ve met and interviewed in Vietnam. But his approach is very different from Caroline’s: he is a self-taught, self-published author of self-help books for travelers and digital nomads (got the pattern?) His plan is to write 10 such books in 10 years. And given that he’s published 2 volumes since 2015 and currently working on the third, his stoic approach to life and work seems to do the trick.
I will conclude this introduction with a wise saying by Marcus Aurelius, quoted in Holiday’s book:
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.”
Unlike his fellow writer and somehow neighbor Caroline (see episode 6) who studied throughout her life to be a storyteller, Michael has a degree in Economics which helped him have a wide perspective on the subject, but taught him very little on the aspects of real business.
“School taught me the macro-economics, stats, mathematics and lots of theory, not marketing, nothing practical. Everything I do now I learned by reading books and then implementing what I read. University wasn’t all useless though, it brought me some understanding of how economics work in the world. There is nothing better for learning all that stuff than creating a company. Because every day you face new challenges, you screw up and need to change, you ask for advice and this way you learn more.”
Soon after graduation he broke up with his then girlfriend and took an Erasmus scholarship in Bratislava. But, as he admits, this wasn’t about going to classes; it was more about socializing, meeting new people and ideas, improving his English which, after 16 years in school was still quite basic. Six months after we find Michael in Canada, working part-time jobs and widening his horizons. He was neither a writer nor a businessman at that time; he was just a young man curious about the world. And by now he achieved fluency in English.
In 2009 he came back home to Paris and got his first full-time job as an online marketing specialist. It took him a year to realize that it wasn’t his game.
“I didn’t want to work for someone else. Going to work every day, having someone tell me what to do….I decided it was better to start my own company.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Together with a friend, he set up a website that helped high school students decide which University is best for them. Michael then moved to Granada to grow his start-up remotely, learn Spanish and…party.
“I was partying all night, sleeping in the morning and working in the afternoon. The website would get me enough money to live in Spain – I was paying 200 euros for a room, partying was cheap; they would serve free tapas with booze. It was a dream come true.”
As the winter settled in, Michael felt tired with his work-party-work-party schedule and decided to take a break from Europe. He then went to the Philippines and traveled around South East Asia for a few months, all the while keeping in touch with his project and with his partner who, in the meanwhile, moved to Australia.
The website grew well and the two friends finally sold the business in 2014, to Michael’s relief.
“We developed the company substantially. We had an office, with investors, interns and employees helping us. At the end, I like to describe it, as creating my own prison. I was going to the office daily, even on the weekends, I had bills to pay, rent, salaries and I was super stressed. Being able to sell it was a huge relief. I was free again!”
By now you probably know Michael pretty well to realize that he wasn’t to stop at this point. It’s when he decided to write books. He flew to Indonesia, then to South America where he spent the next 10 months. Colombia was the highlight of the trip and he would go back there many times (I hope that our old friend Vanessa can give him some insider tips if he does return).
During this time he wrote and published his first book – Pourquoi voyager seul? (Why travel solo?) – which he promptly self-published on Amazon. The months in the land of sangre caliente and cumbia, while very rewarding in many senses, wore him out. He missed the order and safety of Europe and decided to go back to the Old World. His choice of a new base: the Romanian city of Cluj.
“First I went there for a week on holiday after some friends had recommended it. I really liked it, I had such a good feeling about it, I knew I needed to live there.”
It’s Cluj where Michael went to the very same café every day for 8 months until his second book – Voyage à durée indeterminée (Indefinite/endless travels) – was completed.
And then the bug got him again. He took a flight to Da Nang, Vietnam, settled in and resumed his stoic efforts uninterrupted by anything but an occasional interview with the HotForSecurity reporter and his silly questions.
How is it going? Can you make a living as an author?
“It’s going quite well. The first book sold 600 copies in two years. The second one – 500 copies in 5 months. It’s not too bad considering that I do all the promotion alone, through my website, email marketing and social media.
The most important thing is that people really like the books. I get emails every week from people telling me how my work has inspired and helped them. For me, receiving such feedback from my readers and knowing the impact I had on their lives and travels, is more important than the sales.
It is possible to live as an author but it’s a process. You need to invest time in building a platform – blog, social media – to get known. My website is 3 years old now. But I still cannot live off the books. I still use savings and affiliate programs on the website.”
What does it take to be a digital nomad?
“First off, it takes a lot of self-discipline and you can only learn that in time. With this lifestyle you are tempted to multi-task, to be everywhere, do everything. But you need to learn to focus and be disciplined – that’s the most important skill for a digital nomad. It is really hard because you are always surrounded by distractions: beaches, islands, parties, you name it.
I wake up very early in the morning, go to a café and work for 3 hours straight. I cannot work from home, for example. That’s the place where I live, where I sleep, but working needs a different setting.
For the digital nomad life I think it is important to audit your skills and ask yourself if you can do it from some other place. A lot of people could but they don’t really think about it or are scared to. You can start by freelancing at home and then traveling bit by bit.”
How does technology help you achieve your goals?
Take my books, for example. 20 years ago I would have had struggled to find a publisher and see my books on the shelves. Now I just prepare the file myself and send it to Amazon. They print it out and send it to whoever wants to read it.
20 years ago you could not share your knowledge so easily, now you can have a blog that anyone with an internet connection can read. You can become famous in no time with the new technologies, you can do almost everything just by using your phone.
You can also learn anything due to technology and that’s very important because as a travel blogger and writer you need to be like a Swiss Army knife. There are mental skills and practical things you learn when you adopt this kind of lifestyle. You learn languages, how to interact with people, adapt to new cultures, you learn how to be independent. Also on the practical side, you learn how to code, to write, to take pictures, to edit a video, promote yourself in social media or maintain your website. You need to learn constantly and that makes things very interesting.”
What gives you the peace of mind to do your thing, and feel protected?
“Security is a mindset. You have to tell yourself that you will find a way and that everything is going to be fine. And if it’s not going to be ok there is nothing you can do about it. You need to learn that there are things you can control and others that you can’t. Just control what you can, optimize everything – save money, choose a safe place to live, be around good people.
It’s a mind shift first of all and then some practical issues like having enough spare money to go back home if you need to or choosing good insurance in case you‘re in an accident. It also comes with practice. My advice is: start slow, travel around your home country and after a while go further and further. In time, you will build the confidence.”