Staying on the Rails

Sometimes I hear from friends that they’ve lost interest in the hobby. It’s something that happens to all of us, to varying degrees. Photo by Hunter Hughson.

Staying on the Rails

July 2021Sometimes I hear from friends that they’ve lost interest in the hobby. It’s something that happens to all of us, to varying degrees. Turns out, not everyone works the same way, thinks the same way, or is motivated in the same way.

Most of our lives operate with a complex combination of intrinsic and extrinsic forces that propel us toward the completion of tasks. For example, a person working in a creative field will have to function like an entrepreneur, where they’ll envision a piece, make it, and then try to capitalize on it. Without the immediate extrinsic motivator of a wage, artists are forced to summon much intrinsic motivation to survive. This is where I see some crossover between my work teaching young artists and our pursuit of this hobby.

While there are no universal truths about these things, there are some useful strategies for pushing through the hard work of creating when there is almost no immediate benefit. It helps some students to understand motivation as a desire to work toward a goal. 

First, I’ll share some thoughts about desire. Sometimes it’s worth examining the source of our desire in order to get to the bottom of what we really want. For instance, it’s easy for me to see someone else’s accomplishments and be filled with a desire for the same. This can be deceptive, though, because what the other person created was constructed around that person’s desires, not mine. 

I once tried to build a layout with a few towns, operated with a dispatcher and a timetable. I was inspired by big layouts I saw in the hobby press. When I started to operate my layout, I discovered I had built it in a way that didn’t look anything like the prototype. In order to put time and distance between towns, I had constructed implausible reverse curves and long dogbone-shaped aisles with turn-backs, where trains moved in circuitous ways through the room. When I started to build scenery, I was frustrated that I couldn’t replicate the prototype. When I embarked on that layout, I hadn’t considered whether what I saw in the magazines would be satisfying for me. I dove into a big layout project that was really designed to satisfy someone else’s desires, not mine. 

Next is work. Here’s a hard truth: learning a new skill can sometimes feel like work. Not everyone has the energy left after their real job to learn something new, and there’s no shame in that. It helps to understand how the work of your hobby fits within our own unique tolerance for frustration, discomfort and, yes, failure, during a time when you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.

At one point, my career demanded a lot of my mental energy, and my motivation to build models disappeared. Looking back, I wonder if I would have stayed with the hobby through those years if I’d recognized that my tolerance was low when it came to developing new skills and building things. I could have been building simple kits or doing research until such a time as my tolerance for having to put some mental energy into the work of learning new skills matched my lofty ambitions. 

This brings us to goals: I tell my students that it’s important to dig deep and think about what they really want out of a project. I ask them to think of each piece they work on as a study rather than a finished product. That removes the pressure of getting everything absolutely right and creates possibilities for growth. Even if they surprise themselves and decide that a study is actually a completed work, they could look back at it in the future and realize that it was a stepping stone along the way. That perspective is difficult for people of every age. It’s good to set lofty goals, but it’s useful to understand the achievable steps along the way as legitimate goals as well. Indeed, those incremental and achievable goals keep us motivated. There’s an old cliché that has a kernel of truth to it: How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

One last thought is that it can be very motivating to look at someone else’s accomplishments and feel energized by the desire to match their achievement. Do understand that this has the potential to work against you when your personal energy levels are low, when the world seems to bring down a heavyweight on the rest of your life, or if we reach so far out beyond our skills that we perceive our initial outcomes as falling short. We can have almost no insight into the factors that facilitated another person’s hobby accomplishments.

One of the benefits of having many different demands on my time is that I had to think hard about what I wanted out of the hobby. I feel like I’ve been able to extract enjoyment from a layout that’s unique to my interests and fits into my lifestyle while providing ample hours of enjoyment. It’s a hobby, and it’s supposed to be something that brings me joy. My enjoyment only has to be measured against the parts of my day that were less enjoyable.  —Hunter Hughson

July 2021This article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Subscribe today!

This article was posted on: August 20, 2021