What makes you an "expert", anyways?

The inspiration for today's little piece comes from talking to a bunch of customers over the last few weeks, who have brought up the subject of "experts" and the pursuit of knowledge in the hobby. Often, when I've given talks around the country, I've been occasionally referred to as "EXPERT hobbyist Scott Fellman"- YIKES! That makes me cringe.

 

The funny thing is, that if anything, I suppose that the term "noted hobbyist" is more accurate...and in the freshwater world, it would probably be best to just say, "Owner of Tannin Aquatics", because even though I've been a hobbyist in FW and SW all my life, and a "rock star" (according to a friend of mine) in the saltwater world, the FW world largely don't know who the hell I am... Regardless, it made me think about what a real "expert" is in this hobby...and the traits they possess which they won't just tell you about.



As a hardcore hobbyist, you’re not easily impressed, are you? I mean, there are a lot of “armchair experts” in this hobby. I’ve encountered more than a few in my time. The real “experts” in our hobby are far fewer and far less commonly encountered.



Yet, you do read a lot of wisdom from aquarium keeping “experts” that can make a lot of sense; really cutting through the clutter of rehashed “ideas” so prevalent everywhere nowadays. In fact, a real “expert” will not call attention to himself by calling himself an "expert." 

“Truly “expert” hobbyists seem to lead by actions, not by words.



Real "experts" can change the world through their actions.

On the other hand, truly “expert” hobbyists are generally not out to impress anyone.

In fact, there is a good chance that the customer standing next to you at the local fish store, gazing into the cichlid  tank, is uber-experienced, with a setup and livestock that could blow you away- but you won’t really even recognize him/her, because he or she does little overtly to call attention to himself/herself. He has no desire to. 

The revelation becomes obvious, however, when he/she asks a question, or comments on something fish-related, and is glaringly obvious when you see his/her aquariums! He won’t be out there, loudly espousing the latest theories and regurgitating what you’ve read on every forum in existence. Rather, the truly “expert” hobbyists do things a certain way because it works for them. They often utilize methods or embrace techniques and philosophies that may leave you scratching your head- until you see the success they’ve achieved. 



A truly “expert” hobbyist know a little about a lot of things, and maybe a lot about one or two things. As an old college professor once said, “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less…”


(Although long a favorite easy target for abuse by the hobby faithful, you COULD make the argument that these guys are "experts" at building weird aquariums.)

So-called “experts” in our field seem to display an array of surprisingly distinguishable traits that are pretty obvious, once you think about it.

One of the first things you’ll notice when talking to a real “expert” hobbyist is that they have one underlying personality trait: Patience. Yup, they realize that successful aquariums aren’t built in days, weeks, or even months…They take years, and even then, these successful tanks are still considered a “work in progress” by their owners. The true “expert” fish keeper knows that there are no shortcuts to success.



When you check out the “expert” aquarist's tank, odd are that you won’t see it equipped with the very latest gadgetry that you read about on line. Rather, it will generally be equipped with high-quality, high performance gear from reputable manufacturers…and many times, it won’t even be the latest model. That’s because a lot of experts understand one truth: Get the best equipment you can afford, maintain it well, and utilize it to its full potential before you swap it out for the next brand-spanking-new gadget.

That’s not to say that the “expert” only uses last year’s gear and never upgrades or doesn’t have “gear head” tendencies. What it does mean is that the expert aquarist understands that the equipment he/she selects can do certain things for his/her aquarium, and sees no reason to change up just because this year’s model has an additional novel feature…Unless the feature solves some issue that the expert has been grappling with.



Most “expert” aquarists stick to the basics- and stick to them well…We’re talking water changes, careful stocking, environmental control, etc. They are generally not running off on tangents just because they read that someone in France is using _______ to make their Bucephalandra grow better. They’ll study the problem, and make gradual changes as necessary to achieve the desired result. You just won’t see them rush off, headless, in a frantic attempt to solve some problem by looking for the instant miracle.



You’ll find that almost every “expert” hobbyist will avoid shopping for the “trendy named fishes” like the plague. I notice this in reef keeping a lot: You’ll rarely see the "expert" aquarist namedropping and begging about the microchip-sized frag of that hot “LE” Acro or Acan. Rather, you’ll hear them go on and on about the coral that he or she likes, and find out that the reason it’s in his/her tank is because he or she loves the coral!  It's the same in freshwater, of course: It’s the way things should be- keep fishes or plants that you like because you like them.

 

Not, as is so prevalent in the reef world- hoping that everyone will think that you’re cool because you paid $600 for a 1/2” frag of some “trendy” coral (that, in reality, is probably available from multiple vendors that just haven't named the darned thing yet and don't realize that they have this month’s “flavor of the month.”). Expert aquarists just know that money doesn’t buy happiness, success, or “street creed” in the fishkeeping scene. It just buys...stuff.



The real “expert” aquarist  makes it a point to understand the needs of each animal before it ends up in his or her tank. Sure, they will make mistake along the way, but most “expert” aquarists will seldom make the same mistake twice- especially if it cost the lives of some treasured livestock. A simple, short, sweet lesson that is always appreciated.



The real “expert” realizes that “stuff” just happens in fish keeping Plants develop problems. Fishes fail to thrive, and corals develop “anomolous” bleaching conditions…Equipment fails, accidents happen with additives, et., etc., etc.- He or she knows that you need to insure yourself against loss with backup parts, reduncacies in your system design, and with fry of prized species “vetted out” to other hobbyists- just in case the unthinkable happens. 



In a similar vein, the real power of “paying it forward” becomes obvious in situations like that, believe me. Ever noticed that when something disastrous happens to a generous “expert” aquarist whom fellow hobbyists come out of the woodwork to help? It’s not just because the aquarist is well known- it’s because he or she has taken the time to cultivate relationships and friendships with other aquarists- to nurture them and assist with their developing hobby. The realization that we don’t exist in a vacuum has helped more than one fishkeeper move from rank beginner to “expert”, believe me.



The “expert” aquarist also knows that just being consistent and steadfast in maintenance and husbandry can make up for a lot of mistakes- and that you will make a lot of mistakes in aquarium keeping. It’s inevitable. The “expert” learns from mistakes, rather than quits because of them.



In the end, the “expert” aquarist has an array of skills honed from years of experience in the aquarium-keeping game- the product of numerous successes, jarring failures, and lessons learned by getting his or her hands wet. In short, an “expert” aquarist is a hobbyist who has done far more than he or she has talked about, and who continues to push forward the boundaries of modern aquarium-keeping.



Today's very brief, and hopefully, very useful-to-remember lesson.


Until next time...

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

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