A while back, I received a call from a fellow fish geek who was just burned out on his career. He was wondering just how you get into the aquatics industry; just what it is like to do what you love every day. We talked, shared war stories about career changes, satisfaction, and the challenges of balancing life and work. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken with someone who wanted out of what they felt was a soul-sucking career and desired to play with fish for a living. I’m certainly no career counselor, but I have been there. It's sad to be in an unfulfilling career. I know. And, apparently, some of you are in that place from time to time. Today’s column is dedicated to you.
The conversation made me think a lot about my own journey.
It wasn’t all that many years ago that I was comfortably rat-holed in my souless, financial-sector job, using every spare second to play with, or plot about my aquariums, writing my weekly rants on all things saltwater, or traveling to speaking gigs and conferences. My “second career” as a part-time fish geek just wasn’t enough. I had to shake the rusty chains of my dull, but necessary full-time job. It was sucking the life out of me.
I was deep into the typical “caught-in-the-rat-race- of- life” career…Of course, when you’re a fish person, you have one thing that the masses don’t always have: PASSION! Unbridled passion for all things aquatic. It permeates your existence, your every move, like wet hands, and your smelly fish towels. Like many of you, I longed to be playing with fishes full time- and I wanted to get paid to do it, too! Audacious? I couldn't handle the unfulfilling career life I was in anymore. I put out some feelers, and as luck would have it, opportunity found me. I ran out the door into a totally new career: Full time professional Fish Geek! My employer actually PAID me to think of crazy aquarium-keeping ideas all day, to solve people’s fish problems, and to spread the insanity that is our beloved hobby.
My personal journey towards career enlightenment made me leave my beloved So Cal and venture all the way across the continent, to one of the nation’s premiere fish businesses, where I got to be the Fish Geek that the universe intended me to be. Yeah, what a switch! I cannot believe it myself. Toughest decision of my life. So, for the better part of a year and a half, I helped design custom aquariums, acquire uber rare livestock, and help people discover the joy and sheer craziness that reef keeping is. It was a great experience. However, I was desperately home sick for L.A….
Good fortune and timing led me back to my native L.A. when the opportunity came to partner up with New Yorker Joseph Caparatta, who was moving to SoCal to re-launch, re-brand, and re-imagine the dormant “Version 1.0” of Unique Corals. After a lot of back-and-forth plane trips, tons of planning sessions, lots of all-nighters, hard work, and serious dollars, we successfully “rebooted” UC, and I haven’t looked back since.
We’ve created a pretty cool thing here. It gave me great courage and comfort, not to mention satisfaction! This is it for me…aquatics is my life gig, baby. I love this stuff, and like many of you, I also love working where I live. Don’t discount that. Work where you want to live. That's another lesson to learn, trust me. Like, bash my city all you want, but I love L.A.! It's where I want to be. They’ll have to pry my cold, dead body out of Los Angeles…never buying a one-way ticket outta this town again! And man, I totally love what I do.
It all started with passion.
I told myself that, if I ever worked in the industry, the last thing I would ever do is pander to the hapless, uninitated and misinformed…Or would I? I wanted to deal with more advanced hobbyists, like I fancied myself. Then I realized that I’m in a great postion to share my love with a whole new set of people…people who may not have previously known the joys of the aquarium keeping world. It’s been pretty rewarding. You should see the look on someone’s face when they get*their first aquarium, or when you geek-out a fellow hobbyist when you throw an extra bunch of pods into their package! Can’t explain the feeling!
In my relatively brief professional aquatics career, I’ve done stuff like had high-level creative meetings with all sorts of people who want the same experience- an awesome aquarium! I enjoyed helping design, build and stock the aquariums of my dreams- er, my client’s dreams! It’s a scary symbiotic relationship, actually: I got geeked out, they shared their dream, I shared my dream, and we made it their own. They got a cool tank, I got the joy of helping conceive it and overseeing its “birth” and development…all the joys and heartaches.
At Unique, I play with corals and fish all day and keep fellow reefers stoked (okay, that’s a waaay oversimplified description of what I do…but you get what I mean)! And I work with some talented, amazing people. I even get to support my friends’ aquatic businesses by purchasing from them for my business. It’s rewarding. It’s fun. It’s unreal.
My deep love of everything aquatic, particularly biotope aquariums and a certain aesthetic, made me get the crazy notion of starting my "solo gig"- Tannin Aquatics. My reef friends thought I was nuts. However, I figured that if I applied the same level of passion, commitment, and "geekiness" to Tannin as I did to Unique, it might just work..And you know what? It IS working! Slowly but surely, Tannin is forging its own way in the freshwater world, carving out a tiny, but ever-expanding niche for itself. It's exposing me to a lot of new people and "players" on "the other side of the fence" from the "reef bubble" I was in for so long, and it's beyond cool!
In my daily life as a fish geek, I get to see some of the coolest corals and fishes in the world, and deal with some of the most awesome aquarium people around. My speed dial is filled with amazing people with more talent than I’ll ever have, Dan Rigle, Mark Poletti, Jeff Senske, Tony Vargas, Justin Credabel, Jake Adams, Johnny Ciotti, Julian Sprung, Matt Pedersen, the crew at ReefGen, ORA, ADG, etc. At Unique, we've developed this "A list" following of reef geek "celebs" as customers..It’s like a “who’s who” of reef “gliteratti”, as they say here in Hollywood- and, most important, I get to meet new reef geeks every day! And now, the same thing is happening with Tannin. Big name freshwater breeders and hobbyists are emailing and calling me every day...It's like a party that everyone seems to want to go to..Crazy!
Yeah, it’s my dream career (especially since the pro surfer gig just never worked out for me, LOL).
It’s not all fun and games, mind you. In both ventures, I have the same struggles as any other small business: You’ve got long hours, bills to pay, employees to manage, tough decisions to make, competition to hate, lost shipments to deal with, vendors to call, dead animals, equipment repairs, taxes, computer problems, mistakes to correct, a high learning curve to work with, lots of inventory to think about, customers to take care of, and a million other things- some in your control, and others totally random. It’s sheer craziness.
But I do it for a living! And..I love it.
And I’m not alone…lots of hobbyists have transformed their love of the hobby into a full-time career. It takes desire, talent, drive, sacrifice…and some luck. However, a transition into your “dream career” is entirely possible.
If you have a passion for things aquatic, I encourage- no- I URGE- you to act on it. There will always be a place in the aquatic world for passionate people to share their love with others. It is one of the most amazing journeys I’ve ever taken…And what’s even more cool is that I get to experience the fish world from an entirely different perspective, not just my rather biased hobbyist-eye view.
Oh, I still have it, as you know- but I also have gained a great appreciation for the guys and girls on the other side of the counter! And I’ve developed new opinions, new ideas, and have experienced things that few hobbyists get the opportunity to do, especially trying to crack into the vast freshwater world. I’ve even developed humility! There's a lot to learn about this industry! Of course, it’s still fun to poke the bee hive now and again; to tick off the industry a bit…
At Unique, I’ve seen corals that only a few people in the world outside of the collector ) get to see. I remember the first ecolabeled fishes from Papua New Guinea that we brought in, and the first insane Aussie corals we handled. I still get goose bumps when I think about what it is like to open the shipping boxes when they come in! We get really geeked-out! At Tannin, I have friends all over the world who supply me with unusual products and gear, and teach me stuff every day. I get to support seriously talented breeders and speciality hobbyists, like cichlid people, who blow my mind with their talent!
It’s very cool..
My point here is not to brag about how awesome my career is…It’s to inspire you- wherever you are and at whatever stage of your career you’re at- to take that risk- perhaps against all odds (and even your better judgement) and go for it. To get off of that rock you’re sitting on, the crevice you are stuck in. Change. It’s scary, sure. It was for me. However, if you don’t take that risk, won’t you always wonder? The pain of wondering “what could have been” seems far greater than the pain of taking a chance…If you have a dream, skill, and passion for this aquatic world, and you’re longing for a change- GO FOR IT!
You’ll sweat. You’ll cry. You’ll doubt yourself a lot. But, there will come a day when you hop in the car one morning, and drive to “work”, realizing that you can’t wait to get there..and that it’s not really “work” that you’re going to. You will smile. Sure, you may walk in the door to the smell of dying corals, Discus that end up devouring their whole clutch of eggs, a message from a ticked off customer, a lost shipment, some unexpected bills…but you won’t mind it so much, because you’re living the dream. It’s hard to explain, but I think you’re “picking up what I’m putting down” here. Going back to a career that is unfulfilling, working for someone else, seems like too banal a reality for me to even contemplate now, and I’m sure that you’ll feel the same way if you make the leap. Follow your dream.
Here's a great quote often credited to Mark Twain (but apparently never authenticated as such). It works regardless, in our context:
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
Today's little piece of inspiration from the guy who goes to work in shorts and flip flops every day. Take it with a grain of salt, but I hope it moves you just a bit if you're feeling stuck.
Stay focused. Stay the course. Stay happy. But most of all…