On the Outside Looking In

From time to time the various magazines will run a poll in an attempt to gain some insight into the state of the hobby and the current breakdown of the multitude of tribal sub-interest groups. It’s a good idea. The quality of the results, however, will only be as good as the questions that are asked and therein lies the challenge. Some of the important questions are easy: scale, years in the hobby, era of interest etc. Others, are not so apparent and hard to quantify.

At the top of my list would be finding some sort of measure of how deeply somebody wants to be immersed in the hobby. An immediate follow up would be where they feel they are now with respect to how deeply they’d like to be involved. How do you even measure that? I don’t know but I am sure the second part is pretty darn important in terms of where we need to focus our efforts with respect to recruiting, supporting, developing, and retaining newcomers.

Most of us have a number of interests. Some we participate in on a cursory level but enjoy nonetheless. Other hobbies we dig into more deeply and thus get a much richer level of satisfaction from them. Model railroading is no different. Some hobbyists participate at a modest level and enjoy doing so. Others totally immerse themselves in the hobby. How deeply we delve into an area of interest doesn’t matter if, and it’s a big if, we are where we want to be. A big problem arises though if we have a longing to be deeply immersed in an activity, don’t know how to go about doing so, and as a result feel shut out. We feel like we are on the outside looking in. Based solely on anecdotal evidence, and my gut, I have a sense that this is a major issue in model railroading. I can’t shake the feeling that there exists a rather significant number of individuals that aren’t involved in the hobby at all or to the extent they’d like to be.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters. It matters to the individual that isn’t able to access something that would be so fulfilling. They miss out on the therapeutic value of creating something by hand. It matters to the hobby because we suffer by not having these folks on our side of the fence.

Who are these ‘outsiders’? Typically they are older, say age 40 and above. (Those on the younger side either have no problems jumping into the fray or are temporarily pre-occupied with school and early adult responsibilities). These ‘outsiders’ tend to be very bright. Even though they may not have built a single model, this group is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to prototype railroading. Their primary interest is in said prototypes. Professionally they tend to be very successful at whatever career they’ve chosen whether it be business ownership, medicine, law enforcement, military service, teaching, etc. They have an intense interest in railroading in general. Unlike the bulk of the hobby, they have no interest in a layout that is a generic ‘toy’. They want a ‘model of a railroad’.

Now let’s be clear, a portion on the outside really aren’t as serious about being involved in model railroading as they profess. Just as I enjoy the sport of surfing vicariously, they enjoy the hobby as casual observers. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re honest with yourself (the likelihood of me riding a forty foot wave on the north shore of Hawaii is pretty close to zero). I’m addressing those folks that are seriously frustrated about feeling locked out of something they really, truly want to be involved in.

If these outsiders are so interested in being more deeply immersed in the hobby, why aren’t they? The reasons are an equal split between the hobby environment in general and the inertia they’ve created for themselves through inaccurate perceptions and poor time management.

Within the individual’s control there are a number or reasons for this fix they find themselves in.

  • Lack of confidence. They are embarrassed about their beginner level skills. This is a faulty point of view. For one, it entails an overestimation of how much other people care about where you are on the skills spectrum. Others shouldn’t care and for the most part they don’t. Becoming better at anything is a lifelong journey. Where you are on the path doesn’t matter and we all have areas we want to improve. If you’re embarrassed, keep your early efforts to yourself. Let your own satisfaction be the litmus test. Rather than posting your early efforts on the net, limit feedback requests to a few trusted sources that will give objective feedback. I volunteer for that role for anybody that’s interested.
  • Poor leisure time management. I’m sure many will throw the hail Mary excuse up that they just don’t have the time. Although there are some exceptions, the no time excuse is generally just that, an excuse. If Rod Stewart can tour with a rock band, raise a family, and build a model railroad, most people should be able to also. The reason this group is so successful professionally is they have the ruthless ability to understand the difference between PRODUCTIVITY and ACTIVITY. At least at work they are great time managers. When they leave the office though something happens and many don’t take these time management skills home and apply them to managing and prioritizing their own happiness. In recent years a major player is the addiction, and yes it is an addiction, to technological toys. I’m talking about hours frittered way on smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, mindless chat forums etc. Most have the time, they just let it slip away on things that contribute nothing to their quality of life or happiness level.
  • Fatigue and inertia. For whatever reason, more than ever people are pretty fried when they come home from work. The solution here is a self awareness as to when you’re personal energy level is at it’s peak AND you have free time. Focus on small, easy to achieve projects such as assembling a shanty, adding license plates to a vehicle, etc.
  • All or nothing mindset. This is another inaccurate, self defeating point of view. For whatever reason, the ‘outsiders’ are under the impression that it’s all or nothing. If they can’t have an 800 square foot layout then it’s not worth participating at all, at any level. The space never materializes until retirement and at that point they’ve wasted decades that could have been spent developing skills, gaining friends, and enhancing their quality of life. Everybody has enough space to build a module, a freight car, a small structure, or a diorama. Develop these skills now so if and when more space materializes you’ll have them under your belt. I’ve never ever heard a person complain that they didn’t like their layout because it was too small or too simple. It just doesn’t happen.
  • They don’t know how to “play”. The second side of the technology sword, and we are starting to see it with kids, is that at an ever increasing rate people just don’t know how to recreate. Old habits die hard. One strategy is to set a time in your home when all internet and wifi connections will be turned off. For example, 8pm. After a month of cold sweats the body will adjust, freeing up time for more beneficial activities.
  • They don’t know how to jump in. They don’t know to participate (do I build freight cars, structures, locomotives, a module?) , how to start, or which skills create the most impact. This brings me to other contributor to the problem,……

The other half of this conundrum has to do with the current hobby environment as a whole. Although the foundation for solving any problem lies with taking responsibility for how you got yourself into a particular situation in the first place, I don’t put sole blame on the outsider. In the last one or two decades those on the inside haven’t exactly rolled out the red carpet or handed over roadmaps as to how to join the club. The number of compelling reasons and inspirational examples for joining the hobby hasn’t exactly been on pace with previous decades.

This group, the outsiders, want a ‘model of a railroad’. They aren’t motivated by the generic layout typified by a double track dog bone loop, sprinklings of monotone ground foam, un-modified Walthers structures, and general look alike model railroads they are seeing. They want a convincing miniature replica of railroading that can be built taking into account their available space, entry level skills, and time limitations. Of course that can be done, it’s just that there isn’t anybody out there explaining to them how to do it.

More than any other group the press drives our hobby. Like it or not, they assume the leadership role and as they go, so does the hobby. Unfortunately, the advent of the internet has thrown all print media, including the model railroad press, completely off balance and they’ve yet to find completely find their way. The problems the hobby press face are numerous, some self inflicted, many by shifts in technology and the business climate. The current magazine environment is one of covers emblazoned with “How To” followed by whatever the trick of the month is. The problem is they never really tie them all together in a cohesive manner and show you how they relate so that you can build a ‘model of a railroad’. Dig deep articles on top tier layouts have become more rare than they were in the past. A wonderfully executed model railroad receives the same page count as an average layout, both of which fade to oblivion when the next “how to cover’ hits the shelves, typically never to be seen again.

What is leadership in the press? Press leadership is one of going to whatever lengths necessary to root out inspiring model railroads and cover and highlight them in proportion to their quality. It’s showing how to ‘model a railroad’ via a cohesive, month to month approach of explaining how various technique interrelate to and meld to create the overall effect. The ‘one hit, how to’ articles still have their place but it should be a secondary, filler focus more of a side bar if you will, not the main thrust.

The most obvious example of the approach I’m talking about was Allan McClealland’s V&O. Lost in the fray was that McClelland’s modeling was only half of the brilliance, the other half, was the way it was written about and presented to the public over a several year time frame. That article series transformed the hobby and for the most part is a formula that hasn’t been repeated since. Yes, it was a large layout but the concepts applied to all. Allen and the writers made you want to run to your work bench and get to work and they showed you how to do it. They showed you how all the concepts fit together and related. In the past several decades we’ve gotten away from that approach.

Personally, I feel the way out of the doldrums is to dust off this dig deep journalistic approach, bring it a back with changed emphasis on smaller, more attainable layouts skewed towards the modern era. Put the, one hit how to wonders in a supporting/filler role. Focus on a start to finish approach to modeling an inspiring, attainable, railroad laid out in simple achievable steps, and the reasoning why certain approaches are followed.

If the outsiders see something that motivates them consistently in print, feel they too can build it, and feel it fits their space and lifestyle they’ll start putting down their Androids and picking up track cutters.