The most stable social systems in the world are based off of triangles. Think about it: in order for you to have a stable couple-dom with another person, you need to share something in common. Maybe you both like to watch TV. Maybe you both like to travel. Maybe you have kids together or a cat or you own a house that you’re renovating. Without that third thing, or activity, or person to stabilize a relationship between two people, the relationship deteriorates. It’s a simple concept: the Rule of 3’s. But many digital nomads don’t realize it’s significance in their lives.
I studied family psychology to a master’s level and beyond. And I’ve spent most of my life analyzing the social systems in small towns all across the world. On top of that, each year, for the past decade, I developed and managed a Halloween event that involved the yearly creation of a theatrical community of thousands of people (volunteers and patrons) that literally took over a real town in Nebraska. I’ve been married for 20 years to the same man and my 17 year old daughter never went through a rebellious phase. Why? Because I’ve religiously followed the Rule of 3’s in designing our digital nomad lifestyle, always incorporating in a third element (or sometimes a fourth and a fifth) to create additional “triangles” in our lives, as needed, to take pressure off our primary triangle: the family.
Real nomadic people travel as a tribe. Nomadism is generally a phenomenon that takes place in a group setting, not as a solo undertaking. And there are reasons for this. Humans are social creatures. We desire and enjoy the presence of other humans. We also benefit from being a part of a community. Communities offer protection, the opportunity to share in difficult tasks and sometimes the ability for members to engage in the specialization of skills and talents. Digital nomads give up many of these benefits to travel and currently, there’s a lot of dialogue about the direction and meaning of this problem.
Are digital nomads who stop in one place for longer than a year still digital nomads?
What is the real definition of a digital nomad?
How do digital nomads date? Can they have relationships? What about raising children?
These issues are hot topics right now because the value of community can’t be understated. And yet, there are downsides to belonging to a community too, especially communities with certain specific characteristics.
According to systems theory, a closed system will eventually fall into chaos and begin to break down. As an analogy, think of a machine that’s made up of gears and shafts. Without the regular application of a lubricant the gears and shafts will begin to wear away at each other with friction and the whole machine will malfunction and stop working. Social systems are like this too. In Nebraska, I lived in one small town with a population of 1,200 people and later I lived in a different small town with a population of 400 people. Though the town of 1200 people had more people and therefore (in theory) more creative energy to fuel the engine, the town of 400 people was located along an Interstate, so it was an “open system”. The town of 400 people was less dysfunctional than the town of 1200 people because there were new arrivals driving in and out of the town every day. When searching for communities where we can “set up shop” for a longer period of time (3 months to 2 years), we look for places that have an “open-system”; places along a major trade route, for example, or places where there’s a lot of tourism, or a university.
As travelers and digital nomads, we are part of what makes a community that we live in into an “open system”. Because we travel out of the system and then return to it with new information and new experiences, we contribute “openness” to any social system we belong to. So, as I see it, social systems benefit from travelers like us who take up residence in a community and actively contribute to the community. If we don’t actively contribute to the community we’re living in in some way, then we don’t/can’t offer those same benefits to the social system.
Going back to the Rule of 3’s, by belonging to a community for a brief period of time, our family of 3 (my husband, daughter, and me), are able to take pressure off our own familial triangle and incorporate other people into our system. The family is one unit (a triangle, or sometimes two or more triangles if there’s more than one child), but the family has to extend out into the community creating a network that’s based on triangles. Most social triangles are not equilateral triangles. Their acute or obtuse with the short sides of the triangles representing “alliances” and the long sides “adversaries”. Most relationships aren’t neutral (the equilateral relationship), rather there’s tension or conflict between two people that’s dissipated through a third party (the third point on the triangle). Families that belong to communities dissipate tension through their relationships with people outside of the family. Families that are secretive (alcoholic families, for example, or families where there’s severe abuse going on) are closed systems and they’re prone to failure and break-down over time.
As a digital nomad family, we need to participate in a community in order to keep our family healthy. Digital nomads who are traveling independently may find that they crave the presence of another person to ground them and their travel experiences. Nevermind the desire for intimacy, the desire for a companion to travel with makes sense according to the Rule of 3’s: there’s you, your partner, and there’s travel, the three points of a stable unit, the triangle.
For us as individuals (even though we travel as a family), traveling as digital nomads offers personal growth because while we can insert ourselves into a community and benefit the social system, we also benefit from leaving the social system regularly and for extended periods. Why? Think about public schools. Most people agree that there’s something wrong with the public school system (lots of things really) and one of those things is that it’s a relatively closed system. For kids especially the social system is impoverished. Kids only really get to be with other kids their own age with infrequent focused attention from adults. And the kids automatically, from their earliest days in the school system, begin making triangular relationships. Ultimately, these triangles develop into hierarchies (hierarchies are shaped like triangles for a reason). The kids at the bottom of the hierarchy suffer from that position. They can’t move up and they can’t leave. This is one of the best examples of how stifling a closed system can be for a person who can’t leave or change position.
But as digital nomad, I can leave my social system regularly. I can participate in a community of individuals but then, take some time off from it. By leaving the social system, I become exempt from its rules while I’m gone. And when I return to the social system, people who are completely mesmerized by the hierarchy (the people who stay behind), aren’t sure where I belong in the system. I’m not sure where I belong in the system either as long as I stay away for at least 30-60 days. So I get to choose, in a sense, where I’d like to place myself each time I come back to the community.
Theoretically, the digital nomad who lives as part of a community for certain times of the year, has the best of both worlds in terms of social dynamics. But of course, it takes a lot of work to integrate into a community and find a place while still maintaining the freedom to travel. For example, in the United States, anyone who lives in a “development” isn’t living in a community at all. There’s no post office, no school, no church, no library, no grocery store within walking distance inside these developments. They’re just places where people sleep, so people living in developments don’t rely on each other and they don’t develop lasting relationships as a general rule. It would be nearly impossible for a digital nomad who takes up temporary and periodic residence in one of these developments to find a meaningful place in the community. Intelligent digital nomads, who recognize the value of the Rule of 3’s, will take up residence in communities where people walk from place to place (providing opportunities for “chance” interactions like smiling and waving, which seems like a small thing, but can help relieve internal stress on solo nomads and nomad families as well) and have opportunities to interact lightly with each other in social situations that primarily involve niceties but with opportunities for deeper involvement as well.
The value of community in the life of the digital nomad can’t be underestimated. But that’s not to say that when digital nomads first take off on their world travels that they wouldn’t enjoy years of not belonging to one particular community for longer than a few weeks at a time. Sometimes, after people have worked in impoverished social systems for a long time, it’s necessary to go out into the world to “find oneself” again. And this process can take a long time. But ultimately, as humans, I believe that if we’re traveling solo, we’re looking for a soul mate. If we’re traveling as a family, we’re searching for our “tribe”. And if we’ve found our tribe, we search for a place to grow it into a fully-fledged community. There are scientifically verifiable reasons why this is true and there are spiritual reasons why, as digital nomads, we should pursue what we yearn for. The riddle of community and the desire for group-ness as humans is something that the digital nomads of today are working to resolve. We’re working to find new ways to work as a community without the impoverishment and dysfunction that’s characterized many of the social institutions that defined the past 50-100 years. It’s a worthy project and one we all contribute to, as digital nomads, when we travel and when we stay in one place even for a year or more at a time.