Grant Van Helsdingen
Why did you decide to go on Remote Year?
I have always wanted to live abroad for some extended period. It never really seemed feasible and I never wanted it to be at the expense of career growth - I didn’t want to take a gap year where I just bummed around for a year doing odd jobs. After Uni I started working immediately and have been ever since. When I became aware of Remote Year it struck me as exactly what I was looking for - the travel adventure without sacrificing my career goals. The other motivating factor was a desire for unpredictability, I guess. Life before Remote Year was great but predictable, and the idea that I could predict what my life would be like in 5 years was scary to me. I want the unknown, to feel awe-inspired, the challenge of not knowing what each month will bring and constantly having to adapt in different ways. That’s when life becomes vivid, exciting and you feel most alive.
How did you find yourself a remote role?
I was a software developer at Amazon for three years before resigning in January to leave for Remote Year. I’m now freelancing fulltime as a frontend and fullstack developer - doing most of my work through the Gigster freelance network.
Initially I was accepted into Remote Year - Battuta at the end of 2015. I was hoping to work remotely for my existing employer, but for various reasons it wasn’t really possible with the work we were doing. Thankfully Remote Year allowed me to defer my trip for a year. This gave me a year to start setting myself up as a freelancer. I started doing jobs on the side, in my evenings and weekends. Finally, in January I resigned from Amazon to freelance full-time. The rise of online freelance networks like Toptal, Gigster and others has made the transition to freelance much easier, as they secure clients on your behalf.
What advice would you give to others considering Remote Year.
Firstly, plan. It took me 6 months to get all my affairs in order, from securing a remote position, all the admin that I had to sort out; visas, passport renewal etc. I had to plan my finances carefully - as a South African our exchange rate is not favourable for most places in the world and certainly not against dollars.
Aside from the practicalities - consider why you want to go on this trip. Remote Year is not a holiday, and it requires a lot of discipline to maintain that work-life balance when you’re in a new and exciting place each month. Having said that, if you’re looking for a radical change and an experience that will spur growth in every aspect of your life; how you relate to people, your career, your understanding of yourself and the world - then Remote Year is for you. The one common thread between everyone is this group is that they are incredibly open, open to learning from their experiences in each country and their interactions with the people they meet along the way.
What are you working on for the year?
I try to maintain a steady flow of freelance jobs that give me a stable income. So most of my work time is spent on development jobs. Beyond that I have a couple personal projects I am trying to get off the ground when I can make time. The first is project allowing us in Balboa to leave messages around the globe using a QR code stamp that we fabricated in Lisbon. This directs to an app that a few of us are contributing to that will allow our group to leave messages for anyone who sees the stamp and follows it to the site using their phones. There are other great ideas and projects in the pipeline too, the result of fantastic group discussions and brainstorming.
Personally, I’m working letting go of fear this year. Fear keeps us from pursuing our dreams. Remote Year puts us in scenarios where we can face our fears. For example, I’m giving a Javascipt lecture to a conference of industry professionals this month in Bulgaria - a scary prospect, but an opportunity to face down fear and grow for sure.
What do you hope to achieve/gain by the end of Remote Year?
A few things. I’m curious to see whether my wanderlust will have been satisfied and that I would be happy to move back to Cape Town, or whether this is just a launch pad for an extended period of being a nomad. I have no doubt that being able to support myself as freelancer for this year is a trial-by-fire and a huge step forward in my career growth. I’m hoping to end this year as a better person in every respect - to finish month twelve as a more empathetic, open-minded, and compassionate person with a clearer understanding of what my long-term purpose should be.
What does your typical work day look like?
It really varies. Currently I am in crunch time with work, so I’ve isolated myself to really churn out code. But a typical day would be something like waking up around 8:30 and cooking a big breakfast. Then I’ll usually make my way to the workspace and work for a few hours until lunch time. We’ll usually try find a new spot to try local cuisine or maybe a cafe that I can work from for the afternoon. I try to fit in some exercise at some point in the afternoon - we either sign up to gyms or sports facilities for the month, or just go hiking and running. If I have less work pressure I’ll go explore the city - find a nice park or museum, or a cool spot to have a drink. But our calendar is full of track events, dinner parties, hikes and more so most days will have some event to look forward to. Tomorrow we’re doing an overnight camping trip, for example.
Where does your passion for travel come from?
To be honest, I think most people would have a passion for travel if they are able to discover it. Mine really started at the age of 21 when I went to Europe unsupervised for the first time to travel with friends there for a month. That adventure got me hooked, and kick-started solo trips to Vietnam and Hong Kong and each time I grew more and more in love with seeing the world.
How has working remotely affected your current work?
Luckily, most people I work with in my industry are already remote themselves, or deal with remotes on a daily basis. So timezone differences are a fact of life. We organize calls at convenient times but mostly communicate via delayed slack updates on progress. I find myself being even more productive than I was in an office back home. The hours I put in are much more productive now, despite there being so many distractions. You have to set yourself rules to some extent, of course - although I find that if I work according to how much panic I feel, it's a great measurement of how many hours to put in. The nature of freelance means that sometimes I’ll work a 60 hour week and other times a 10 hour week. And I prefer it that way.
Do you plan to sustain this remote lifestyle after Remote Year?
To some degree yes. To what degree I don’t yet know. I love my home and I would always want to have a presence there, but I could see myself living remotely for some of the year. Luckily I still have plenty of time to think about it.
What is the most challenging part of being a remote worker?
Well easily the most challenging was leaving loved ones behind. There are people back home that I love and miss fiercely. But this feeling of leaving something behind is what makes all the new experiences beautiful, because you can feel their value is given weight by what you gave up to be there.
Practically, you face everyday challenges that range from the mildly annoying like misreading the bus timetable to the much more annoying, like losing your luggage. You are constantly adapting to new surroundings, cultures, languages and people, and as soon as you really start feeling at home - you’re up and off to a new country. The stability of your normal everyday life is gone, and only then do you realize how safe it made you feel.
What is the best part about being a remote worker?
See the above paragraph. Remote Year is like life on steroids. You get to experience the most incredible things on a weekly basis. You get to meet a bunch of strangers who quickly become family, in the most interesting of ways. Your community brings out the best in you, and you in turn can be inspired, if you can rise to the challenge.
What is your secret talent?
I can do a pretty solid back handspring. And like, a minute-long handstand.
Where have you lived / traveled to previously?
Growing up, most of my travels were within South Africa and neighbouring countries. My parents are huge outdoor and wildlife lovers and took us on extensive camping trips to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia - which was most of my travel experience in my childhood. I’d been living in Cape Town for 7 years before coming on Remote Year, and before that a nearby town in the Cape Winelands called Stellenbosch. Before Remote Year I’d been on holidays to Europe and South-East Asia, but never longer than a month at a time.
What book should everyone read?
I read 1984 by George Orwell for the first time recently and it really blew my mind.
Your favorite traveling hack?
Wear literally all of your clothes on travel day. I’m talking t-shirt, jersey, leather jacket, cap, jeans, boots in Lisbon heat. That way your luggage won’t be overweight and you can take your spices with you.
3 things you can't live without on the road?
My big cushy headphones, my kindle and my music.
What has been your favorite Remote Year city? Why?
Lisbon was the most obviously fun. That city was interesting in so many different ways, was incredibly beautiful and had some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. But each city has been amazing in its own way, and each with its charms. Prague was lots of fun as we experienced a city as a community together for the first time.
Describe your Remote Year experience in 3 words.
Inspiring, challenging, exhilarating.
Describe your perfect day.
A perfect day right now for me is achieving that magical balance between work and play; when you have made great progress on a project and still did something awesome like bungee jumping off a bridge in Bulgaria.
Where are you in 30 years?
I don’t really know, and that’s how I like it. 3 years ago I would never have dreamed of being where I am right now. I’d like to start a company in the next ten years, but an ultimate goal still eludes me - I guess that’s part of the reason why I’m on Remote Year. 30 years from now we’ll probably all be androids or something, so why worry.
What are you most passionate about?
Right now I’m most passionate about learning from the world, seeing how humanity works at scale and how much we all have in common at the end of the day. It has made me realize how much I love my home country and how much potential there is there.
Who is the most interesting person you've met while traveling?
Beyond my fellow remotes, it would probably be the city teams, particularly Helena from Split.
Your favorite quote / words to live by?
Cliched as it sounds, right now it’s probably that last part of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken -
"I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
I should probably superimpose that on a picture of a girl doing yoga on a mountain top and Instagram it.