A Side Trip to Wonderhell

I should be jubilant. But I’m not.

I’m habitually non-jubilant. I don’t know why.

This weekend, I returned from the kind of a trip that I don’t take very often: an all-by-myself vacation. This year, I attended the IPMS/USA National Convention 2023 in sunny San Marcos, Texas. IPMS is the International Plastic Modelers’ Society. The convention is three things: a contest, a meetup, and a vendor showcase. This is the first time I’ve ever attended.

The contest is a big deal. Some people spend years preparing for it. And I won two gold medals for a model (a “replica”) that took me seven years to make. It was awarded 1st place in its category and then it was named the best of its class: one of only eight such awards among a field of over 3,000 entries.

I should be jubilant. But I’m not.

There are modelers out there who have worked hard over the past who-knows-how-long, suffering now that their work didn’t result in the level of appreciation they had hoped for. They probably have a right to be offended that I’m not jubilant.

One of the reasons I’m not jubilant is because I promised myself before the show that I wouldn’t get too emotionally wrapped up in how my entry was judged. There are just too many things that could conspire that could deny—rightfully or not—my little model from winning a prize. So, before the show, I preloaded my mind with the following sentence: 

Don’t put your self-worth in someone else’s hands. 

My wife and I have similar conversations with our kids. As she says, sometimes we need to ride the monorail, not the roller coaster. For example, when you believe you’re awesome because a local sportswriter says that you are, then it’s also tempting to believe that you’re trash when that same writer doesn’t include you in his all-area team. If you get too high or too low because of how someone else defines you, you’re almost guaranteed to crash eventually. 

That sentence of mine sustained me for the first three days of the show. The 3,000+ models on display in the contest room were absolutely overwhelming. There’s no way I could walk in that room and feel like a legitimate competitor, no matter how hard I knew I had worked on my model. It would have been ludicrous to think I was going to win something. Even when I did, it felt like it couldn’t be real.

Now that I’m home, I’m in this weird predicament of having summited an audacious, multi-year goal, certainly a good feeling, but simultaneously there’s this looming feeling of “now what?” Sure, I won this huge award three days ago, but what have I done lately?! 

It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. But I know I’m not the only one. What I’m feeling happens so often, it even has a name: Laura Gassner Otting calls it Wonderhell.

At the end of all this, the feeling I’m trying to savor and cultivate is gratitude. Thankful for the awards, of course, but also thankful for what I really was hoping for when I signed up for the show. What really drove me while I was building my model was the hope that people might look at my model, enjoy it, and want to talk about how I built it. 

That conversation happens every month in my club (my model couldn’t have been what it was without my club). And it happened enough times in San Marcos to make it fully worth submitting myself to the harrowing competition part of the convention.

Maybe I’ll do it again someday, I’m not sure. But for now, my monthly club meetings will be enough. Right now, I need to focus on improving my business so much that someday soon I can blog about being oddly not jubilant about that.


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