This past summer, I decided to experiment with the “digital nomad” lifestyle. As I researched different locations to post up for a month or two, one place kept popping up over and over again: Chiang Mai, Thailand. After spending some time there and talking to other remote workers and long-time expats, I feel like I can offer a pretty informed opinon of what this place is all about. So, is Chiang Mai a good place for freelance writers? Or should you set up shop somewhere else?
This city of around 500,000 inhabitants located in northern Thailand, surrounded by a breathtaking landscape of rain forests and mistcapped moutains dotted with golden Bhuddist temples. For many years this city was relatively unkown to the outside world, but in the past decade it has became famous as the preimer location for location-independent entrepreneurs and freelancers.
Why Chiang Mai? A big part of the draw is the fantasic value you get for your money here. It is possible to live comfortably on $1000/month, and that includes housing, utlities, transportation, eating out, getting drinks, tourist attractions— everything. If you’re bringing in $2000/month or more here, you can ball out here. Personally, I spent around $2500, because I didn’t feel like pinching pennies, and since I also had an unexpected medical issue and had to pay for treatment with cash (also cheap). It is quite possible to live here on as little as $600/month, but you might not want to try (more on that later).
Understandably, this insanely low cost of living has attracted so many location-independent workers and entrepreneurs from around the world that Chiang Mai is now considered the mecca of the digital nomad movement. This includes not only freelance writers, but programmers, drop-shippers, designers and almost any other type of work that can be done remotely. I honestly do not understand why the city has remained so cheap considering how many foreigners are pouring in here and how often it gets mentioned online, but it shows no signs of changing.
This concentration of people working remotely makes it great for networking. Coworking spaces like Punspace put on happy hours pretty often, and all these startups people are launching will certainly need sales copy, blog posts and other content written for them. If you’re a freelance writer who is proactive about connecting with people, you’ll probably be able to find some business.
There is also just a cool, friendly atmosphere here. If you came here to work online, there are a lot of other people here doing the same thing, and you can get plugged into a social circle very easily. It’s kind of like freshmen orientation in college where everyone just kind of makes friends with and chats with everyone. You really can just show up and very shortly, you’ll have healthy social circle hang out with. This is another reason why Chiang Mai has become a popular spot for people working remotely.
No place is perfect and Chiang Mai is no exception to that rule. There are many articles and videos creating the impression that this city is some sort of paradise, but it’s important to balance that with a dose of reality, because there are 3 issues here that made me rethink whether I could ever set up shop here permenantly.
1) First of all— we need to talk about driving in Thailand. The method of choice for getting around in Chiang Mai is a motorbike, and, well…people in Thailand drive like homicidal maniacs. This is true of any city in Thailand, but more people are inclined to try driving a motorbike in Chiang Mai because it is a relatively small city and people think it’s “safer” compared to driving in Bangkok.
This is true…up to a point. People still drive really fast, constantly cut each other off, and don’t ever seem to signal. The concept of “right of way” doesn’t seem to exist here at all. Have you ever watched a flock of birds or school of fish, and seen them all suddenly change direction simulatenously? You think to yourself, “how the f— did they all know to change direction at the same time?” That’s kind of what driving in Thailand is like. They also drive on the left side of the road here, so that may through you off depending on what country you’re from.
Oh yeah— driving drunk is also a popular passtime here.
If you get out into the countryside, there will be much less traffic, so you’ll probably be fine out there, but driving in any Thai city can be a nerve-wracking experience, and that unfortunately goes for Chiang Mai too.
2) Simply put, if you came to Thailand to party, Chiang Mai is not the best place to be. After the military coup in 2014, the government imposed a strict midnight closing time for bars all over the county. That rule was eventually lifted nationwide, but for some reason, Chiang Mai has not lifted that rule. Bars close promptly at 12:00, though there are a few after-hours clubs like Spicy which will keep going past midnight after the doors close.
Don’t get me wrong— there are some good bars and lounges here. While everything is open, Chiang Mai is a lot of fun at night. The best places to go out are the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood where most digital nomands choose to live, and the area of bars centered around Zoe in Yellow in the Old City.
As far as dating goes— it’s no secret that Thailand is a fun place to be if you’re a single guy. I used Tinder during my stay in Chiang Mai, and ended up meeting a nice girl who I hung out with for most of the month I spent there (side note: be sure to carefully examine each profile before swiping right. Some of these “ladies” are, uh, not what they appear to be…)
Now I was happy with this, but I can tell you right now that if you’re a guy who is trying to party and date a lot of different girls, Chiang Mai is not the place to do it. This is a small city and it is very common to run into people you recognize in public. If you are trying to be a player here you WILL get caught. You’re better off posting up in Bangkok if that’s what you’re in to.
Oh, and as far as the seedier elements of nightlife that Thailand is known for…you won’t see much of that in Chiang Mai, thankfully. The combination of this small-city atmosphere and the early closing times keeps most of the hookers, sex tourists and pervs far away from here. It does exist, but it’s not all sleazy and in-your-face like it is in other parts of the country.
I can’t speak on what it’s like for women who are trying to date here, but there are plenty of local fellas to choose from, as well as dreadlocked hippie backpacker types if that fits your niche, so pick your posion. Most of the “falang” (foreigner) women I met here were either backpackers passing though, or digital nomads who were in a relationship with someone who also worked remotely. Chiang Mai a popular place for location-independent couples looking to enjoy a chilled-out lifestyle.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, none of these problems I mentioned above are that big of a deal, but there is one more issue we need to talk about. It’s a classic example of just a little too much of a good thing.
4) Life here is easy…a little bit too easy. Everything here is cheap, the pace of life is pretty releaxed, and almost all the amenities you could want are availible.
The problem— at least in my opinion— is that it is very easy to become complacent in a place like this. The tranquil atmosphere and very low cost of living allows people to just kind of check out of life, and settle for making the minimum amount of money necessary to maintin their lifestyle. It’s already happened to hundreds of foreginers who came here, were seduced by the low prices and just contented themselves with making a few hundred dollars a month. Many of them overstay their tourist visas illegally, and this eventually became such an issue that the Thai government started cracking down on it, though it is still very widespread.
Many will just get a job teaching English— not because they enjoy teaching, but because it seems “easy” and will allow them to remain in the country on a work visa.
It’s a very easy trap to fall into. Look, I’m not knocking those who live here. I made some good friends during my stay, and I actually do plan to come back at some point. Here’s the thing, though: if someone wants to take some time off and chill out in a beautiful, tropical locale, I think that’s great….but there is a difference between that and moving to a cheap city in a developing country, doing the minimum necessary to get by, and not living up to your full potential.
There are, unfortunately, more than a few (most younger) foreigners in Chiang Mai who have chosen that path. It’s okay to mingle with these people and make friendly chit chat, but if you’re a freelance writer (or any other kind of freelancer or entrepreneur) who wants to be successful, you can’t allow that kind of complacent thinking to affect your mindset or work ethic.
Surround yourself with people who will push you to be better. You can find them in Chaing Mai too, you just have to look a little harder (I guess that’s true anywhere).
So, is Chiang Mai a good choice for freelance writers? I would say YES, it is, especially if you’re just getting started out and you’re on a tighter budget. If the problems I mentioned above are not a deal breaker for you, then the pros do outweigh the cons.
Overall, Chiang Mai is a good choice for freelance writers, and an especially good choice for people working abroad for the first time.
Of the best books I’ve ever read on self-improvement or business wasn’t written by a marketing guru, sales expert, or a Fortune 500 CEO. Not even close.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life was written by Scott Adams, a corporate guy-turned-cartoonist/entrepreneur. One of the things I love about his book is that Scott has such a contrarian way of looking at work and life. There are multiple examples of this in his book, and it would be worth it to write a whole post covering these ideas. But today we’re going to focus on only one idea in the book— one that is perhaps the toughest pill for some readers to swallow: His philosophy on setting goals:
Let’s face it— we live in a very results-driven, goal-oriented culture. From the time we can walk, most of us are taught at least on some minimal level about the value of setting and achieving goals. It’s not surprising then that many people find this kind of talk about goal-setting to be not simply wrong, but almost heretical.
On the surface, it appears to make no sense, and it’s tempting to just write it off as B.S. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this notion. It’s not quitter talk; Scott Adams is one of the most successful cartoonists in history, with a net worth in the high 8-figures, in case you’re wondering. It’s worked for him, and it has worked for many other successful people too.
In fact, you choose to adopt this approach, you may not even need to change your actions that much. Rather, it’s about adopting a different mindset— one that could produce much better results for your business.
Scott Adams’ basic argument is that following a system of behaviors is a more effective way to get what you want than setting a goal. Here’s how Scott describes it:
“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.” [emphasis mine]
For example, let’s say Dave currently has a “dad bod” and he sets a goal of “Get a ripped beach body before summer”. This is how most people approach getting in shape.
What happens all too often is that people start going to the gym, don’t see the results they want very quickly, and become discouraged. Dave is no exception.
Each day as Dave looks at where he is now physically, and then thinks of the idealized future body he wants, one thought is continually reinforced in his mind: “I’m not seeing much progress. I’m not there yet.” It’s easy to see how this can lead to “this is too hard, why bother?”
Now let’s say his friend Jim approaches the same challenge by adopting a System: committing to eliminating sugars from his diet and doing 100 push ups, sit ups and bodyweight squats a day.
Each day as Jim follows these steps, a different thought is reinforced in his head: “I did my exercises today. I ate right. I’m winning.“
The shift is one in perspective. In both examples, Dave and Jim might be following the same exercise routine, but Dave is discouraged because he is fixating on a distant future he has not reached yet, while Jim is focused on that one box he needs to check off every day.
The Goals Mindset constantly reinfores the idea in Dave’s mind that he has not succeeded yet, while the Systems Mindset is continually reinforcing the idea in Jim’s mind that he has “won” for the day.
This can be applied to anything. You may say “I want $10,000 in my savings by the end of the year”. Why do you want that? For financial security. That’s a goal.
Let’s try a Systems Mindset instead. Instead of focusing on that 10k goal, you can commit to automatically transferring a percentage of your income into savings each month. The money just goes there, automatically. No sacrifice or willpower required. Stick with it, and it is inevitable that you will reach that 10k, perhaps sooner than you expected. That’s a system.
In the video above, Scott himself correctly describes the act of going to college as a system and not a goal. Why? Because the majority of us who attend college are not 100% sure what kind of job we want when we begin our studies, but we do know that attending college, generally speaking, improves one’s odds of landing a lot of desirable jobs. Similarly, landing one of those jobs is a goal, but dressing well and researching the company before getting an interview is a system that will increase your odds of getting hired.
The Systems Mindset is especially useful for business activities where you do not necessarilly control the outcome, such as cold calling. If you’re making cold calls, the fact is that each call is going to end one of three ways: a Yes, a Maybe, or a No — and more often than not, it’s going to be No.
So rather than thinking “I need to close 10 deals by the end of month”, try adopting a Systems Mindset: Just commit to making 25 cold calls a day, and don’t get attached to the outcome of any one conversation. Remember that the Law of Averages is ironclad and that (assuming your list is intelligently designed) if you keep following your system you will, eventually, get a “Yes”.
Each day that you make your 25 calls, you feel like you’re winning — regardless of the outcome. This creates a cycle of positive reinforcement; you grow more confident when you feel like you’re winning, and you start winning more when you feel more confident.
Conversely, what kind of cycle do you think obsessing over the outcome of a phone call is going to create? You’ll feel discouraged because you didn’t make the sale, and you won’t make sales because you feel discouraged.
Now some of you are probably thinking that this is all bullshit, because the only reason you even adopt a system in the first place is to achieve a goal.
The real takeway from Scott Adams’ book is to just try looking at acheivement differently by focusing on smaller, doable tasks performed on a regular basis which take you in the right general direction, as opposed to single-minded focus on a desired end-state. It is much less psychologically taxing, and the regular mental reinforcement that you “won” for the day will give you the confidence to keep at it until you inevitably get what you want.
I’m not saying goal setting is pointless. I still belive there is a lot of value in it, particularly SMART goal-setting, since it helps you measure your progress. But I have to say that adopting a more Systems-oriented approach to my work has drastically increased my productivity. Devoting 1 hour a day to a project and just putting in my time each day helps me get it done a lot faster than thinking “I need to finish this ASAP”.
Another example: I recently began training Brazilian jiujitsu, a discipline which kind of forces you to adopt a Systems Mindset. I showed up to each class and put in the work, month after month, without focusing on getting promoted to a higher rank. Sure enough, I just got stripes added to my belt last week, and was taken by surprise when it happend. I was too busy just enjoying the process and improving my skills to even think about rank advacement.
I’m not trying to settle the Systems VS Goals debate with one blog post, and I know not everyone is going to be convinced given how deeply ingrained goal-setting is in our culture. But even if goal-setting has served you well in life, try out the Systems Mindset and see how it works. Don’t be surprised if it allows you to now only meet, but surpass whatever desires you originally had.
Scott Adam’s Blog