The hobby can be a tool for lifetime learning

More than once I’ve suggested that model railroading can be a way to build skills for a lifetime. What do I mean by this and what skills might I have in mind?

Obviously there are many skill sets in the hobby with regard to building a layout, such as space planning, researching the prototype and carpentry. There are also obvious artistic skills when it comes to scenery, painting and weathering rolling stock and structures. In kit building you learn to think structurally in three dimensions and, let’s not forget the mechanical and electronic skill requirements involved in even a simple layout.

Did I mention the analytical and detective skills needed to figure out what happened when something goes awry? (I assure you something will go awry.) These are the obvious and important skills one develops in the pursuit of this hobby. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Are there other useful life skills that can grow over the course of a modeling lifetime? Yes, I believe there are and, that if examined more closely, this idea could represent a different way of presenting this hobby in the context of contemporary life.

Much has been made of the life skills such as honesty, integrity, perseverance, leadership and excellence that participation in organized sports or other team activities can bring to an individual. I submit that the hobby of model railroading, when approached with the right mindset, can provide many of the same skills.


I’ll use a sport I’m somewhat familiar with as an illustration: Golf. I hasten to add that I only played recreationally and sporadically, never had a professional lesson in technique and therefore, am not the least bit skilled at the game. Despite all that, I still enjoyed my times on the course (when I wasn’t hitting out of a bunker) and to this day feel I benefitted by learning about myself.

Golf relentlessly showed me how easily I get frustrated and my subsequent tendency for giving up early because of that frustration. Golf was also merciless in putting my ego on full display for the unfortunate ones who were around to see it. While these are embarrassing, unpleasant things to share, there were positive things I learned too, such as an ability to focus on and analyze the lie of a shot, which I would then occasionally put in the hole.

So, if golf is an exercise in personal humiliation and a good walk spoiled. What about the hobby?


As a child and adult, I rush through things. It doesn’t matter what it is, I’m in a hurry. Just slap-bang it together and get it done. My dad always used to say: “What’s the rush?” A question I never had a good answer for. While skilled people can do things quickly, hurrying seldom leads to good work. My early work in the hobby demonstrated this without mercy. Over the years I have seen examples of outstanding craftsmanship that always inspire me to do better work. Trying to achieve similar results has shown me that such skilled efforts take time, lots of time. It’s called patience. It’s a virtue and the hobby can teach it in many ways.

My subsequent work has taught me patience in numerous ways from handlaying my track, to learning to do things right the first time, to the humility to do it again if the results are less than I know I’m capable of. Doing work over isn’t my idea of fun; so I’ve repeatedly made conscious choices at the bench to slow down and focus on what I’m doing. This takes real mental effort on my part. A sloppy habit fed over a lifetime is hard to overcome. Here’s a real key: A motivated desire. The desire for improvement in my modeling skills provides all the motivation needed to deliberately slow the pace of my work down and exercise more care toward the task at hand.

As hobbyists, we don’t talk about this. The American hobby mantra today is all about more. It’s about time management, multitasking, maximizing efficiency and other business management ideas. It’s just one man’s view but to me if you’re feeling pressured for time in this hobby, then your expectations are unrealistic in terms of what you can accomplish as one person. There, I said it.

Many times I’ve heard or read about someone’s master plan that would be a challenge for a dedicated group of people to pull off, let alone one person with the typical demands of modern life. Learn patience? Who has the time?

Over the years I also learned that I couldn’t have it all. However, I can have some of it. The choice for me was quality over quantity. Exercising patience can lead one to a very satisfying place in terms pursuing ever-increasing levels of skill and craftsmanship. The hobby can provide such pleasures in droves.


A first cousin to patience is persistence. Actor Woody Allen famously said: “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Meaning to simply try. We’ve become a nation of excuses for why something can’t be done and the hobby today is no exception. It’s too hard, it takes too much time, that’s too much work.


The proper name for this mentality is:

Crap.  (A) Chosen Response Against Progress

It took persistence to hand spike every tie for the track on my layout (not to mention patience). It also took persistence to solder a feeder wire to the bottom of every piece of rail to provide a solid electrical path. No one forced these standards on me; they were my choice. Through both of these things and many others, I’ve been able to practice a new skill set to use in my life beyond the basement.


The end result of practicing patience and persistence toward one’s work is often a quality called excellence. Excellence is considered a dirty word in certain hobby circles these days. It’s touted by some as the domain of elitists and snobs who “think they’re better than the rest of us.”  Excellence is actually this: the outcome of people who give a damn about the quality of their work and how they express themselves as modelers.

At its best it’s a mindset and a set of personal standards freely chosen by the individual because of the satisfaction pursuing it brings. From the minute you pick up the first tool, the hobby offers untold ways to practice excellence. The degree to which you achieve it depends on you and you alone. 

Skills For A Lifetime

I’ve only mentioned three out of dozens of life-skills one can learn from this hobby. The hobby press pushes the idea of fun relentlessly. Fun, however, comes in many forms. What happens when things stop being fun? What happens when your main interest is large scale Union Pacific Big Boys and that you simply cannot run them satisfactorily in your small-scale space? Are we having fun now?

Don’t misunderstand, I’m all for enjoying the hobby. It can be immensely fun in many ways. My view is that focusing solely on “fun” is selling it short. Railroad modeling is a multi-dimensional pursuit that can take whatever form you want it to. I know people who thought they had zero in the way of artistic skills who went on to build amazing models and layouts. I know people who have learned how to work with all manner of materials and fabrication techniques and are doing stunning work, work and skills they might not have pursued outside the context of their love for railroading and trains. When practiced deliberately, this hobby can teach you more about yourself than you would ever learn elsewhere and that’s what I call fun.





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