I’m not certain that people don’t choose their avocation as much as the diversion chooses them. Every one should have a hobby. It’s a way to express oneself in a way that all too few have the opportunity in the workplace. Humans are naturally creative, and most hobbies foster that creative spirit. Likewise, everyone has a unique combination of skills and experience, and the individual’s hobby is probably as much a reflection of their life as it is their abilities.
Model railroading is, more than most hobbies, a building enterprise. It appears the hobby attracts intelligent people who enjoy working with their hands. In my completely unscientific survey of modelers featured in the hobby press, it seems that physicians, engineers, technicians and tradesmen are all well-represented. Educators and folks in the creative arts also seem to make up a fair number of practitioners. Vocations that require high intelligence, but less manual dexterity, such as lawyers and scientists, seem less common. Odds are good, though, that a random conversation with a given model railroader will yield an interesting conversation.
Intelligent people require diverse opportunities and experiences, and model railroading provides that in spades. To build a model railroad from start to ‘finish’ (it’s axiomatic in the hobby that a railroad is never ‘finished’) requires knowledge of, or the willingness to acquire ability in, several building trades, design, a variety of arts and crafts, research, and prototypical operation. People often find that they are attracted to one aspect of the hobby, and concentrate their efforts in that area. It’s a ‘big-tent’ hobby, and the person who enjoys building structures is as welcome as the person looking to exactly recreate operations on a specific railroad’s Fourth Subdivision on 6 June, 1934.
Because the hobby requires a fair amount of fabrication, there was some hand-wringing in the hobby press a few years ago about the viability of the hobby in an age of instant gratification. One can go into a hobby shop and buy an airplane or car, and be operating shortly after purchase. One cannot buy a complete model railroad. There are custom builders, but the keyword there is ‘builder’. It still takes time to assemble the final product. But for many, I would say most, in the hobby, much of the attraction is the building process. It’s about creating something. People are generally good at creating, and they like to do it. So much the better if the creation is kinetic. This hobby addresses that need.
Model railroading does suffer a social stigma, and it’s the ‘playing with trains’ problem. Because a lot of children, mostly boys, have some sort of train set, whether it be department store sets, or Brio, or Thomas the Tank Engine, model trains are seen as a childish pursuit. For those outside the hobby, the level of skill and ability required to bring a layout to fruition is obscured by the fact that grown adults are running small trains around. Yet when most of those people see a scale model railroad, they are nearly always impressed. Still, I can’t say how many model railroaders I’ve met, because almost no one will admit to it in casual conversation.
I’ve encountered this in my layout building effort. When I needed to use my landlord’s shop tools to build the layout table, he naturally asked what I was doing. When I told him, I got that look usually reserved for men who take up flower arranging. Perhaps not quite that bad, as my ability as a carpenter was known to him through work I’ve done for him. Still, when I showed him what I had in mind, he admitted that the effort was much more sophisticated than he’d imagined. His regular handyman is somewhat more reserved, although even he has to admit of my building trade and car repair (i.e manly, tool-using) capabilities.
For myself, I have no problem letting the nerd flag fly. I’m accomplished in several fields, a successful business owner, and generally a tax-paying, voting, productive member of society. I’m doing this to have some fun, not particularly to fit in with the ‘cool’ kids.