Learning is a fundamental part of human growth. As self-employed creatives, we have an innate drive to gain knowledge and skills to better understand our craft and improve our work. However, some may see excessive or compulsive learning as a form of escapism – a way to avoid doing the real work needed to advance our careers. In this article, we’ll explore when learning crosses the line from being purposeful to being an avoidance of responsibility.
The Purpose Behind Learning
First, let’s examine the motivation behind learning for the solo creative professional. Broadly speaking, we pursue knowledge for three key reasons:
- Personal Development
- To expand our perspectives, develop new talents, and reach our full potential as creative professionals. Learning makes us more capable.
- Value Signaling
- To gain credentials, skills, and knowledge that allow us to offer more valuable services, charge higher prices, or gain new clients.
- Critical Thinking Development
- To enhance our ability to solve complex problems and make sound judgments. Sharpening our critical thinking allows us to create work that connects more deeply with audiences.
These motivations give learning an outward focus – we learn not only for ourselves but to create work that matters to others. There is typically an intended application behind expanding our knowledge. We seek to offer increasing value to the world around us.
The Pitfalls of Learning as Escapism
However, sometimes we use obsessive learning as a means of escaping real work instead of enhancing it. Knowledge acquisition becomes a compulsive behavior that distracts us from doing the work that helps the above reasons. Some potential downsides of excessive learning as escapism include:
- Avoiding Actually Working
- Endlessly reading blogs, books, taking online courses rather than making/selling creative work.
- Evading Necessary Business Tasks
- Using learning to avoid doing accounting, taxes, paperwork, client outreach, and other vital but unfun business activities.
- Filling Inner Emptiness
- Trying to fill a spiritual or emotional void through compulsive consumption of information rather than facing oneself or one’s creative challenges.
- Escapism from Failure
- Using learning to retreat after setbacks on big projects instead of addressing deficiencies and making improvements.
- Losing Touch with Reality
- Getting lost studying creative theory without regard for practical client/audience needs and business considerations.
- Information Overload
- Learning so broadly that no knowledge gets properly implemented or put to use in the creative work.
"We feel like we haven’t learned anything until we have learned everything.” - Essentialist author Greg McKeown
This obsessive pursuit of knowledge for its own sake runs counter to the essentialist mentality of discernment – focusing our learning only on what truly matters and will tangibly improve our creative business.
Finding Balance as Lifelong Learners
Despite these above pitfalls, lifelong learning is essential for creatives who want to maximize their abilities and adapt to an ever-changing world. However, it's vital we keep our learning focused, balanced, and tied to implementation. We can then avoid using it as an excuse to evade doing the actual creative work that moves us forward.
Here are five expert-backed ways freelance creatives can overcome these challenges:
Be deliberate in what you want to learn and how you intend to apply that knowledge to offer superior creative services. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University has commented, that having a “growth mindset” where we intentionally develop our skills over time is key for creatives. Don’t just self-educate arbitrarily or in a scattered way. Have a plan for building know-how that will directly strengthen your creative offerings.
Set reasonable goals for expanding your skills. Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work" and "Digital Minimalism" writes, learning should enrich your abilities, not totally replace doing client work or running your solo business. We need to balance self-education with actual creative output. Don’t overindulge in learning at the expense of producing work. Cal Newport emphasizes focused learning paired with tangible creative production, which ties in nicely with...
Don’t just accumulate theoretical knowledge. Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit” notes, that persistently applying new ideas is critical. Implement those learnings by refining your creative process and offerings. Measure how expanding your skills translates into improved client work. Learning without action is wasted.
Learn creative skills but also study business operations, sales, marketing, finances, time management, etc. as key to a holistic solo enterprise. As innovation expert Tina Seelig advocates, we need both right-brain creative abilities and left-brain execution capacities. A narrow learning focus leaves gaps.
- Reality Checks, Always Assess
Periodically examine if your learning links to practical career goals aligned with your circumstances. World-renowned author, Brené Brown discusses, not using learning as an avoidance coping mechanism or excuse to evade necessary sales, administrative, or promotional tasks. Continually reassess knowledge-building priorities.
Information alone cannot replace doing.
Examples: Learning Escapism
To make these principles more concrete, let’s illustrate the difference between learning escapism and intentional development for self-employed creatives through some examples:
The Web Designer Avoiding Difficult Client Conversations
Pat is an independent web designer struggling with a difficult client who keeps requesting significant design changes very late in the process. Frustrated by poor communication, missed deadlines, and the client’s unreasonable expectations, Pat started taking more web design courses rather than having candid conversations about the project scope, timeline, and budget. By escaping into learning instead of addressing the underlying issues, Pat fails to set boundaries and continues feeling overwhelmed by the client’s demands.
The Blogger Learning SEO vs. Improving Content Quality
Emma is a blogger seeking more site traffic and subscribers. Instead of focusing on improving her blog content quality, she starts obsessively reading marketing books and taking SEO courses rather than writing. While the courses provide useful tips, Emma starts tweaking metadata and keywords instead of publishing new articles and videos for months. She avoids doing the core creative work even though her content remains subpar.
The Overwhelmed New Freelancer
Alex just started freelancing as a video editor but feels overwhelmed by all the tech, creative, and business skills he needs to learn. He starts compulsively studying every online course he can find about editing while taking virtually no client projects. His endless learning becomes an excuse to delay doing real video editing jobs while he tries to feel “ready.” Unfortunately, only real-world experience – not perpetual training – will truly prepare him.
In each case, important client/creative work gets neglected when excessive learning becomes a form of procrastination or escapism. The creatives avoided challenging conversations, improving creative output, and gaining hands-on experience by hiding behind more self-education. While learning has value, when taken to extremes, it often distracts from vitally important work.
Examples: Intentional Skill Building
Using the above lessons, here are some examples of contextual learning tied directly to professional enhancement:
The Photographer Learning Lighting for Upcoming Shoot Locations
A photographer landing several indoor shoots at event venues, theaters, and conference rooms proactively seeks out lighting courses and tutorials tailored to those types of rooms to refine her skills specifically for the jobs she booked.
The Writer Improving Their Medical Niche Knowledge
A writer who just acquired medical technology clients researches medical device engineering principles, clinical terminology, and healthcare regulations to better write informed content for that industry and audience.
The Podcaster Studying Broadcast Software Before Launch
An entrepreneur planning to start a business advice podcast takes tutorials on operating digital audio software, sound engineering, post-production, and the podcast distribution process to prepare for launch success.
In all three cases, intentional learning aligns tightly with present needs – upcoming client shoots, niche industry knowledge, launching a podcast business. By tying learning directly to professional scenarios already on their plate, knowledge builds relevant skills vs. just becoming trivia.
The Takeaway – Learn to Work, Not Escape It
Lifelong learning helps creatives adapt and thrive in independent careers. But improperly balanced, we risk using learning excessively to escape the failure, uncertainty, anxiety, and gritty work that ultimately generates growth. Information alone cannot replace doing.
So stay curious and knowledge-hungry in your field, but also: confront fears holding you back, have tough talks with clients, implement ideas not just consume them, get hands-on instead of only reading about skills, and balance learning with visible creative output. Don't use learning as mere intellectual busywork and personal distraction from the necessary labor all creatives must also do.
The wise words of the Roman philosopher Seneca sum it up perfectly: "Non scholae, sed vitae discimus – We learn not for school, but for life." Make sure your knowledge acquisition targets are enhancing the creative life and career you live right now rather than avoiding the present by escaping eternally into learning.
As always, Thanks for Reading!