Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The Five Year Itch

I’ve read a number of articles recently on ‘nomadic techies’, people that live as sparse as possible while moving from place to place every few days, weeks or months and how this impacted their lives, a backpack, a laptop and an online business or consultancy seem to be the main ingredients.

This spate of articles has caused me to look at my own life to date in a new light and I think I too have been bitten by the nomadic bug only with me it seems to last on average five years before I reboot my existence, and I have a rather large backpack.

The major reason for this is a very simple one: I get bored. That’s it, it is no more complicated than that. I can do any job but only for so long and once the challenges are met or tamed and things become routine I find my patience runs out and I have to change. If I start looking at this over the course of my professional life to date, since the ripe old age of 17 or so sequence looks like this:

1982-1986NLAmsterdamEmployed by a bank, mail room, app. programming
1987-1992NL/PLAmsterdam/Rijswijk/PoznanContract work for customers
1993-1997NLIJmuidenProduct development, licensed software
1998-2003NL/CAIJmuiden/TorontoOnline services
2004-2008CA/NLSt. Josephs Island/Groningenmanual work (various houses, windmill)
2008-2013NLGroningen, Limburg, IJmondFinancial services, project management

Give or take a few months here and there and maybe a few more sidelines. So on average every 5 years I pick up those that are dear to me and some stuff and move and/or shift into a new line of business.

This is extremely hard on others, even if to me it seems to be a very natural and easy to do thing. The risks associated with these moves and shifts, the logistics of it and the financial burden is only one part (such moves, especially international ones are very expensive). The other part is how it wreaks havoc on your relationships with other people, family and friends as well as co-workers and others that you are normally in contact with because of physical proximity. I probably don’t even have 1% of the people that I know and that are dear to me within a 10 Km radius around where I live, the majority of them are at least one or several countries away, if they’re not on a different continent altogether.

It’s also hard on my children and significant other. The flip side is that all this has given us a fairly broad perspective on life, on the (western, so far) world and on the nature of friendship. Knowing a lot of people and knowing them more than just as acquaintances has enriched my life in a large number of ways, something that holidaying in all those places would have never given me. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to travel and see places. It just means that a few weeks or months is not enough to really get a feel for a place and for how living there really is. If for instance you visited Canada from May through August you’d miss the winters and those change your view on life in Canada tremendously.

Contrary to the monthly or weekly version of the techno nomad doing this on a five year roster and with a family rather than by your lonesome (maybe with a backpack and a macbook) it is a very expensive trick to perform. You’re looking at housing, vehicles, furniture and so on as well as possibly burning up a sizeable investment in those if you can’t sell your stuff (you don’t have much time once you decide to move so you will get crappy prices).

Still, the upsides (to me) far outweigh the downsides, it keeps life interesting and varied and it gives you time enough to grow some roots but not so many that you can’t uproot and move if you feel like. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep this up forever, closing in on 50 now there is a tingling sense of unease, a part of me that wants to really settle down and grow roots to stay. But then, after 5 years of doing the same thing I’m pretty sure that the same urge to do something else would surely creep in.

Astute readers will have noticed that another 5 year term is up. Right now I’m not in a position to move, nor has the desire to do so announced itself in a way that I can no longer ignore. But who knows where I’ll be in two years from now, it’s impossible for me to know for sure and that by itself is part of how it starts The thing that is different this time around is that I still like the work that I’m doing, I work with people that can (and do) teach me a lot, they’re interesting and nice (both to me and to others) and there is a sense of camaraderie that i so far lacked. Currently we’re in the process of evaluating ideas that are viable for our next project/company and I’m sure that once we find something and I commit to it that I’ll be able to tame the bug for long enough that I can meet my responsibilities. But if no such project can be found all bets are off!

The nomadic life-style is marked by traveling light, I can’t say I qualify for it from that perspective. After five years in one place it is amazing how much stuff gets collected. Right now I have a warehouse full of stuff in Limburg, as part of an attempt to jumpstart a business there. Just getting rid of that is a major exercise in logistics and then when it is done we still need to sell the building. But I do find that I look at the things that I have in a different light because of all this.

Things of real value:

  • sentimental stuff (pictures, paintings)

  • tools (woo if you move to a region with a different mains voltage)

  • musical instruments

  • books

But especially books are heavy, bulky and hard to move! Even so those are the categories of things that seem to travel with me where-ever I go. Unless you’re living a minimalistic life-style trying to choose which 1 metric tonne of your family-of-four you want to take with you can be a pretty revealing exercise in priorities and sentiment discovery. (oh, and tools are quite heavy!).

Another downside to this way of life is that I really no longer know where I belong. No single place feels like home or ‘motherland’ or anything like that. You learn that the grass on the other side may look greener but that it rarely ever is, that every country has its good sides and its bad sides but that there is no country that does everything right. I sometimes miss feeling ‘home’. Until I was in my mid 20’s the center of gravity would always be Amsterdam, but having lived on a nearly uninhabited island (300 people on 200 square kilometers) and some other interesting places city life no longer holds me in the way it used to. I’m not a city boy, I’m not a country boy, I’m not even sure what kind of person I am in that respect any more. I enjoyed both and I enjoy where I am today, in fact, I’ve learned to adapt fairly easily to new situations and to be able to make friends and feel good in most places.

I have no idea where the future will lead me, I’m open to moving again at some point, maybe Asia, maybe Eastern Europe or some other place not even currently on my radar. Whatever it will be I hope it will be unlike any other place that I’ve ever lived in so far, and that it will bring me new insights, new people and new experiences. Because that’s the one thing that I think that binds all nomads: Insatiable Curiosity.