(Me shooting stick at The Clocktower Brewpub in Ottawa, Canada circa 1997. There’s a connection between this and railway modelling: read on…)
There’s a great discussion taking place on a number of blogs I follow, as people reblog and add their thoughts to counter the concept of selling the railway modelling hobby as “fun”.
I encourage you to read the complete blog posts (links below) and join the discussion. I have lifted some excerpts and posted them here, however – then offered some thoughts of my own.
Mike Cougill promoted this discussion via the blog he writes as part of his business, OST Publications. Mike posed 20 Questions around the premise “Model Railroading is not fun”. Several days later, he provided his own answers – as they relate to his personal enjoyment of the hobby – in a post called Putting My Money Where My Mouth Has Been. In discussing some setbacks he’s experienced while detailing a locomotive, Mike writes:
All my blabbering on about craftsmanship and excellence is really aimed at myself because when it comes to modeling rolling stock, I’m not competent at all. I have a learning curve to navigate and more mistakes to endure before the outcomes on the bench reflect what I see in my mind, if indeed they ever do.
The standard advice is chill out, lower my standards and just have f_n. (Hey, have you heard, it’s a hobby!) It would’ve been easy to give up after a few crappy turnouts but I pressed on even when it looked hopeless, which was often. I’ll keep after the GP9 too, even though I’ve botched two different paint jobs and it’s reaching the point where the shell won’t tolerate the abuse from stripping them off without suffering damage to the details. It isn’t fun now but it will lead to a good place eventually. As the old saw goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it.
I think there are some great lessons in Mike’s post – particularly about self-awareness. We cannot improve our skills until we admit to ourselves that they need improving.
Mike also introduces the notion that treating the hobby as “fun” makes it easy for us to ignore the need to improve – and that, in turn, denies us the even greater feeling of “satisfaction” when our skills improve and we create a great model, or scene, or layout.
Simon Dunkley picked up the ball from Mike and ran with it his blog, The Erratic and Wandering Journey. In his post, Railway modelling is not fun, he writes (in part):
Do we really need to patronise our audience and ourselves by bringing things down to the lowest common denominator? I think the famous phrase “Model Railroading Is Fun” is glib, and ultimately misleading.
Simon even makes a great connection between “fun” and “lowest common denominator”. That resonates well with me.
When I read that, it reminded me of how frequently people dismiss an accomplished, driven modeller as “elitist” when what’s really going on is they envy that person’s skills and drive – but won’t bother making the effort to attain the same level of expertise. This attitude – like “fun” – sells the hobby short, because it suggests that hobbyists should be happy with being mediocre.
Nowhere else in my life do I hear that sentiment.
For example, I work my Border Collies on sheep, and through that experience I’ve met lots of other Border Collie owners who work sheep. I’ve never, ever heard any of these people say “Well, I went to a trial and only lost 20 points on my run – that’s good enough for me!” The same can be said for just about any competitive activity – from golf to darts. Participants are always looking for ways to improve their game.
But in our hobby? We have the “three-foot rule” and the “good enough” principle. And “fun”. Surely, we can come up with better – more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding – attitudes. How about, “the close-up photograph” rule, the “great” principle, and “satisfying”?
Chris Mears follows both Mike and Simon, and did a great job of summing up his feelings about the subject on his blog, Prince Street Terminal. As he notes in his post – also titled Railway modelling is not fun…
These models we build are amazing works of engineering and of art. They are something to be proud of and the time invested in them was wisely spent not just for the satisfaction of a model’s completion but for the growth we triggered in ourselves as we honed the craft of the hobby and our mastery of its skills.
This, too, resonates with me. In building my layout, I’m not just engaged in the hobby as a way to waste a few hours when I have nothing better to do. I’m learning skills that I can use in other aspects of my life. For example, in wiring my layout I’ve learned enough about electricity to feel confident doing small jobs around the house – and I’ve also learned to respect electricity, so I know when I need to call a pro.
While learning skills is important, the hobby also teaches me a lot about myself – particularly when I’m trying to push beyond my comfort zone to do better and the going gets tough. To name but one example, if I’m hungry I know I should not build models (or attempt other challenging tasks – in or out of the layout room). I’m just too distracted, and mistakes occur.
The strategies I use to overcome those tough situations are often strategies that translate to other aspects of my life. The mindset I need to embrace in order to build a challenging model or learn about a new technique is equally useful outside the layout room.
Overall, I’m struck how each of these talented, thoughtful modellers feels the great potential of this hobby is diminished when it’s described with a trivial word like “fun”. Because the concept of “fun” includes the proviso that if it becomes “not fun”, then one should just give up.
That attitude is great for branding ice-cream…
… but terrible for building a model railway. Because as soon as the layout-builder runs into something that isn’t fun – like learning to wire, or learning to scratch-build a bridge for a specific location – they’ll compromise on an easier solution or look for something else to do.
I’m reminded of a time, several years ago, when I shot a lot of 9-Ball Pool in a friendly bar league. I knew the basic skills of lining up a shot, but I frequently missed shots by a very small margin: The object ball would just kiss the edge of the pocket by enough that it would rebound away instead of dropping in.
Losing all the time might have lost its appeal if I was there for “fun”. But even though it was a friendly league, we were all there for the “satisfaction” of winning (and the occasional shirt or other prize that came with that).
So one day, fed up with my consistently poor showing, I rented a table for a couple of hours and practised shots. But instead of just lining up shot after shot, I made careful observations of my technique. I would line up what I thought was a good shot and if I missed the pocket, I’d make a mental note of which side the object ball hit, and by how much I missed the pocket. Sure enough, I was missing to the same side every time, and by roughly the same amount.
Once I realized this, I would line up what I thought was a good shot – then adjust the cue to compensate for the error. From my perspective, the new cue position looked wrong – but I’d take the shot and the ball would land in the pocket. After a couple of hours of this, I was lining up the shot correctly, every time.
In short, I retrained my eye to see the angles properly – and I even won a few games at the bar.
(Not exactly as shown)
My skill improvement on the pool table was due to observation and practice. Both are skill-based. Anybody can observe and practice, and learn to shoot a pool ball into a pocket, reliably. And the same techniques – observation and practice – can be applied to the hobby to make ourselves better modellers.
But it was also due to wanting to do better – to working through the problem even when I was not having “fun”.
It’s something to think about. Thanks to Mike, Simon and Chris for getting me thinking about it!