Thoughts from the Workshop: Time for Hobbies

*disclaimer: this is more of an editorial/opinion/musing piece than a “how I built this thing” kind of post; I just felt this section of my website was the best place to post it.

Earlier this year, I picked up the latest edition of Model Railroad Planning; an annual publication produced by the staff of Model Railroader magazine that focuses specifically on planning model train layouts, one of my favorite aspects of the hobby. Among the articles was a piece written by a professional layout builder who designed and built a layout for a friend. This friend enjoyed building and running models of trains, but had little interest in the act of constructing the layout itself, much less planning the layout beforehand. However, his main reason for hiring a professional layout builder was his own profession: He was a surgeon, and as such, his time for hobbies was fairly limited.

Another article I read online some time ago explained how when people start earning higher income, they start “buying back” their time. This usually means hiring a lawn mowing service, or a maid, or perhaps having groceries delivered to their home instead of going to the store themselves. The reasoning is that their time is more valuable, literally. To a person earning $100 an hour, paying someone else to mow the lawn is simply more efficient than doing it themselves. To this surgeon who wanted a model railroad, it was a more effective use of his resources (time and money) to hire someone to not only build the layout for him, but use their knowledge and experience to build it right the first time, as well fit the layout to the surgeon’s needs and desires. This is as opposed to the surgeon using his precious time to learn to build his own layout, surely making mistakes and having to do things over again in the process.

This concept of limited time for hobbies really stuck with me. The surgeon’s approach made me think about how I’m allotting resources for my hobbies of Lego building and railfanning. Over the past few months, I’ve been evaluating the way I use my limited time to enjoy my creative pursuits, seeking to ensure that I’m getting the most of what I want from the activities I occupy my free time with. Below are some of my observations on the topic; I share them with the hope that I might spark conversation or self-reflection on the matter for other hobbyists (not just fellow railroad nuts!) so that we all might get the most out of our limited hobby resources.

Railfanning takes time. The actual act of capturing a train on pixels as it passes you doesn’t take long, only a few minutes in most cases… but there’s downtime while waiting in between trains. It takes time to drive to and from trackside locations, time is spent planning trips looking for good places to see trains, and time is spent editing and sharing photographs and videos after the trip. It also costs money. Money is spent on camera equipment; money is spent on food and gas, vehicle maintenance, toll roads, and hotels. Money is spent on museum admissions or train ride tickets, and those train rides take time!

In May of this year, I drove approximately 3.5 hours (7 hours round trip) to Tyrone, PA, to do some railfanning. After driving up Saturday morning, I spent a few hours trackside, stayed overnight in a hotel, and then spent some more time watching trains before departing for home on Sunday afternoon. I caught nearly 30 trains in about 12 hours trackside, and produced a fair number of images I was quite pleased with. I consider this a good use of my time; the drive was a little far, and the hotel stay did cost a few pennies, but I feel that the results were worth the driving time and expense.

On the flip side of the coin, one finds my experience from a recent Saturday: driving 4.5 hours (9 hours round trip) to BrickFest Live at the Meadowlands Expo Center in New Jersey, only to be disappointed by the event and spending less than an hour there when I expected to spend at least two or three. I don’t feel it would behoove me to speak ill of the event, but the bottom line is that BrickFest Live is aimed at children, not adults. There were less than a dozen AFOLs displaying their creations, the rest of the event was mostly building areas and games mobbed with kids. Granted, if I was 7, huge piles of Lego that I was encouraged to play with would be a dream come true. However, I am 27, and I have a much better (organized!) selection of bricks at home, and my workshop isn’t crowded with shouting children. I did see a dope castle, had a nice conversation with a man about his well-built boats, and I spent about $18 on parts just to feel like I got something out of the trip... but overall I wasn’t very entertained. My intention was to attend a Lego expo as a member of the general public rather than a registered exhibitor, and enjoy seeing hundreds of brilliant creations made by my fellow Adult Fans of Lego without having to worry about my own display. If the event website had been clearer about the nature of the event, I would have spent all that time staying at home and doing something more productive and enjoyable with my hobby. Now, certainly it’s a bit easier to see the balance of resources when it comes to traveling, but what about hobby time spent at home?

At BrickFair Virginia in 2017, I was approached by a sales rep for a company that ships out “build challenges” to their subscribers each month. He asked that I try their service from an adult perspective (most of their customers are families with children) to see how I liked it. Each month’s box contains a pamphlet with a story that ties all the build challenges together; you have to create your character for the story and build the various scenes and props using the Lego pieces provided in the box to bring the scenario to life. Once you’ve finished your creations as prescribed by the narrative (no step-by-step instructions, just general prompts like “build a museum for your minifig to film a movie in!”) you’re meant to upload pictures of each of your builds to the company’s Facebook group, so all the participants can see what others have built and win prizes for the best builds. I don’t care much for the story or the make-believe, and I found that the social media demands from the box (read: receiving endless notifications about the hundreds of other posts in each thread) weren’t enjoyable at all. The part I DO like is that the build challenges test my creativity and open my mind to new possibilities. Plus, receiving a box of random Lego parts each month is quite alright!

As part of my agreement to test their service, I offered to post a YouTube vlog of me trying out my first box. Filming the vlog was reasonably fun, despite having to do multiple takes of each segment, but editing the vlog proved to be far too much of a chore for my liking. Editing videos of trains is less time-consuming, and although I don’t concern myself with the analytics of YouTube, the train videos I have posted gain views far more easily than my two vlogs, which I have since taken down. I recognize from successful vloggers that it takes time and effort to build an audience, to create content that people want to watch and then gathering and keeping people who want to watch it; this is time and effort I’m not interested in spending.

The same issue applies to my workshop blog as a whole: I enjoy building things and sharing pictures and videos of them with the internet, but writing up a storm about HOW I built them, remembering to take step-by-step pictures, and then assembling it all into a blog takes time and effort. Instead I’ve found that I prefer to lose myself in the creative process, *then* share the final product on social media to talk about my creation with others… and bask in the psychological validation of likes and comments. Why should I spend my limited hobby resources on creating content that doesn’t bring me much satisfaction, especially when this content doesn’t rake in the psychological validation (likes and comments) as easily as the content I DO enjoy producing?

While I haven’t finished scrutinizing how I utilize my hobby time, I have already made some changes to get a better ROI from the resources I put in; I stopped pursuing a vlog because creating one wasn’t enough enjoyment, I focus on sharing finished products on limited social media outlets to curate a desirable quantity of psychological validation, and when I put in seemingly “wasted” time, I pursue a more valuable outcome to ensure that the downtime was worth the uptime. Yes, I spent two hours standing by the train tracks, but the train that eventually came by was worth the wait. Yes, I traveled a long way to an event that failed to meet my expectations, but at least I acquired some useful parts and had a pleasant drive.

Point being, we all have limited resources to put into our hobbies. It’s easy to see how far your money goes, but it’s not as easy to see how far your time goes. A simpler example to draw might be the difference between making dinner and ordering takeout. Making dinner could take, say, 15-30 minutes of your time. Ordering dinner takes less than 5 (we’re not counting the time spent eating, of course) but does the cost of doing so outweigh the value of the time gained back? Putting the question back in Lego terms, one might look at parts sorting. Personally I enjoy it, but many Lego enthusiasts do not. Sorting and organizing a Lego parts collection takes a lot of time (not to mention money spent on a wide variety of parts storage containers) but I say it pays off because not only can you find the piece you need for a build very quickly, but you know exactly how many of that part you have, should you need to order more. While the surgeon wasn't interested in learning to design and build a layout, the time spent planning a layout is something I take great pleasure in. What time is worth investing in your hobby?