In the past months, I’ve played with several themes on the blog regarding freedom layouts, craftsmanship, and understanding the why behind the design of a layout. These were all random and, I thought, separate ideas. Yet recently they have come together in a way I hadn’t expected.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a voracious reader. This includes online as well as off. I was reading a blog written by Cal Newport, a computer scientist and Professor at Georgetown University. He’s also author of several books including his most recent: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest For Work You Love. I’ve purchased and read the Kindle version. There are lots of good thoughts to consider.

His blog, Study Hacks, is mainly geared to college students (Hi Will) and career professionals with a focus on developing efficient study skills and what he calls “rare and valuable skills” that you can eventually trade for a more fulfilling career. A link to a past article in one of his posts caught my eye as I was reading and stuck with me afterwards. It was worded “Do Less; Do Better; Know Why.”

These six words sum up and tie together the three lines of thought I’ve been writing about over the past months. With much appreciation to Prof. Newport, here’s my breakdown and application to model railroading.

Do Less
While I avoided any definitions or proclamations regarding size in my discussions of Freedom Layouts, you could infer that I envisioned something smaller than the typical basement empire. The concept of Freedom Layouts comes from a shift in my own thinking and preferences. As I’ve progressed through various stages of the hobby, I’ve learned what practices I prefer and my tolerances for the duration and complexity of a given project. I now understand the impact these factors have on how likely it is I’ll see things through to completion.

We all have different and finite levels of discipline, time and other important resources to bring to our hobby. I’ve discovered that it is important to understand my working rhythms and interest levels, because both will ebb and flow throughout a protracted layout build. My own conclusion is that smaller is often better, at least for me. Many readers have agreed by expressing the sentiment of feeling relieved that someone else feels this way too.

Clearly, everyone has his or her own objectives and my intention isn’t to dictate or lay down more useless hobby dogma. I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned after years of trial and tons of errors.

Do Better
The emphasis here is on craft and skill. I’ve written about the mindset of “Turning Pro”¬†inspired by author Steve Pressfield, and how that translates into hobby activities and our approach to them.

When commercial products were few and far between and often of inferior quality, a craftsman’s approach used to be the norm in our hobby, now it’s an individual’s choice. Prof. Newport and many others argue, and I agree, that the development of genuine skill in any discipline involves a prolonged time of hard work and disciplined focus without any shortcuts. Excellence comes at a cost. This is as true in model railroading as it is in any other endeavor. The majority of people will only strive until they reach a certain level of proficiency and then settle in on the plateau of complacency. I’ve explored a lot of acreage on this plateau and the only way off is via focused, disciplined effort. By focus he refers to a hard focus: one requiring considerable effort toward a specific outcome, be it the mastering of a series of musical chords or fabricating the proper shape of a locomotive boiler from sheet brass. Both tasks require repeated effort to thoroughly master the techniques involved. The road traveled will be a lonely one since few will put forth such prolonged efforts.

The argument will be made that this is just a “hobby” and who cares about skill, excellence and learning. Fun is the name of the game for me. Indeed, for many that is all they ask from a hobby. My response, however, is lots of people care about matters of craft. Attend any RPM meet, review the contest entries at a national convention of any kind, scan the pages of certain publications dedicated to craftsmanship in modeling, and you’ll see work done to the highest standards simply because the modeler chose to bring all of himself to the task rather than settle for good enough.

Know Why
Prof. Newport makes a point here about students who know why they’re in college. Meaning, they have an objective and pathway toward it mapped out with a degree of clarity. Such students know what they want from the college experience.

Why are you in this hobby? (Picture a shrug of the shoulders here and the words: “I dunno.”)

For many, if not most people, real trains and/or model trains made a positive impression that went deep enough to provide the motivation or desire to explore things further. These explorations took individual form, resulting in different levels of interest and involvement over time.

For decades, the default answers to my question above are to build a layout of some kind, or go the collector’s route by accumulating a bunch of stuff that’s seldom or never used. Maybe both paths and the myriad others are attempts to recapture those positive feelings of our first encounters with trains.

The point isn’t so much about the path chosen but that a choice has been made, rather than aimless wanderings of idle distraction. Let’s move beyond the lines of default thinking and consider other realms of ideas.

Could this hobby become the means of developing useful skills? Could it provide a practice ground for deliberate thinking and purposeful skill building? By now my answer should be obvious; yes, it can. Let me provide an example.

My writing skills have improved greatly because of the hobby. Publishing numerous articles, a regular idea based magazine column and weekly posts to this blog over time has honed my ability to use words more effectively to convey ideas. The hobby provided the motivation and the requirements of deadlines, both external and self-imposed, built the structure needed to improve my writing. My improvement to date took place haphazardly; however now that I better understand the nature of deliberate practice, I see how to improve my work even more through a disciplined routine. This is but one example of how an individual might approach model railroading beyond the obvious ways in which it is promoted.

Over time we all grow in our knowledge of the hobby, eventually reaching a point of feeling bored from a lack of challenges. The default solution to said boredom is a new layout project, a change of modeling scale, switching our focus to a new prototype or style of railroading and so on. These are all reasonable options.

My view is that these are also attempts to fill an internal hole from the outside, a methodology that never works for very long. Eventually the new layout presents the same problems as the old one, problems you’ve already solved. The contents of the shiny new box just purchased lose their appeal more quickly than the last one. So it’s on to the next and the one after that, on and on, for as long as it goes. Yet lasting satisfaction is seldom found.

An important aspect of long-term satisfaction in life comes from meeting challenges where we’re stretched beyond our current skills and knowledge. Yet many of us settle in comfortably after things feel good, never stretching further. It’s a choice we make, whether you like hearing that or not, and it doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is to stretch our skills beyond the comfort zone of complacency. Yet few will do the work involved because it’s hard. Getting over the idea of “hard” and making the sacrifices is the only way. An upcoming volume of The Missing Conversation, will feature two interviews with modelers who aren’t afraid of taking the hard road. Making that commitment is a choice freely available to all.

Links: Study Hacks


  1. Matt


    Another excellent and thought provoking, so yes your a honing your writing skills. I for one feel the hobby has a lot to offer and helps move one along various learning curves. Field research is something that never thought much of in the past, but it is a pleasure to go and see a place where trains once ran. Even more interesting is to study how early railroad civil engineering conquered the wide variety of challenges they faced. You can even study the scenery, types of trees etc.

    Must admit, been going back through old (50’s-60s) Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman for Paul Lawson, Jack Work and other scratchbuilders to learn their techniques. Even went out and purchase Troels Kirks realistic color DVD to learn how to improve my painting skills.

    When you decided to build a smaller model railroad, you can work on these various skills and improve on them as you have time.


  2. mike

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the comment. I collected most of the series of articles Paul Larsen wrote for RMC, starting in the mid 1960s through the early 1970s. They are among my favorite pieces of writing on this hobby.

    Remembering that they built those early railroads largely with manuel labor boggles the mind today.