Learning and growing...what's "failure", anyways?

“The only real mistake in life is the one from which we learn nothing…” 

-Henry Ford

Some time back, I received a call from a friend who was just devastated. She was a very experienced hobbyist, with a lot of years in the game- like 25 plus. She made a really basic mistake, failing to quarantine a few new fish from a trusted online vendor, added them right to her 300 gallon Discus aquarium, and - you guessed it- almost her entire collection of fishes- many rare and expensive- are showing signs of Ich.  Damn.

After we discussed her best course of action, she seemed a lot better…However,  she called back again later to just share how she was feeling; The usual emotions you’d expect when one goes through something like this: Regret, self-criticism, questioning, and…shame. The "shame par" was interesting to me, because it seemed to me she was being unnecessarily embarrassed. Of course, being a fellow veteran in the hobby game for three decades, and a keeper of fish since I could walk- I shared my war stories, and reflected on the many, many mistakes I made. I provided the usual “rah, rah" stuff, which essentially became platitudes at some point. The bottom line is that she felt pretty shitty, and just wanted to sort of beat herself up, despite my supportive admonitions to move on. I don’t know if I fully reached her.


Not too many days later, I did something that created similar feelings in myself- Having been asked by a site administrator eager to have Tannin's support, I sent out a plug/blog for my company for an aquarium-related blog in in frenzy, just before an early morning rush to catch a flight, without proofing it first.

Of course, you KNOW what happened, right? It contained some really stupid typos- some flat out screw-ups by me (like misspelling the name of my own company!), and some a result of the spell checker not recognizing the botanical names and offering laughable corrections- which was still clearly my fault, because, hey- the human is supposed to "check the spell checker," right? Now, no reader seemed to notice, yet when the errors were pointed out to me by a friend, I fell into the exact pattern my friend friend did- disgust, embarrassment, frustration, anger at myself..and yes, shame. Shame that I had let my company down, that I- the “mighty wordsmith” of Tannin, had let some sub-par stuff slip out into cyberspace, perhaps "damaging" my brand.

Sure, I tried to rationalize what happened…There was little to rationalize. Better to analyze what happened. I rushed and failed to do the things necessary to avoid errors before sending. The solution was obvious- just slow down and proofread! Much like the solution my Discus-loving friend was given by yours truly- “You know what to do-just quarantine from now on. You've got this...” Easy to say, right? Sure, she had a short term problem of a tank full of expensive, sick fishes to contend with. Would the mistake devastate her tank? What is the immediate solution? Decisions had to be made and action taken. Quickly.  Would this mistake result in her getting out of the hobby? No. Of course not. 

Would my typo-filled post result in the demise of Tannin Aquatics? No. If that’s all it took, that would be pretty sad…Besides, if customers thought less of my entire company because of a few isolated typos, I wonder if these apparently flawless, "god-like" people are the types I’d want to do business with, anyways. 

Yeah, we can rationalize away mistakes. We can dwell on them. Wallow in it. Let them beat us, and win. 

Or, we can learn from them, move on, and vow to take measures to never again make the same mistake. I think that’s a better approach, don’t you?

Remember the investigation following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the 2003 Columbia tragedy? NASA realized that both incidents were a result of failure to follow safety protocols that were- or should have been- in place to prevent these kinds of things from happening. Administrative pressures to launch and complete the missions overwhelmed the need to slow down and consider the possibilities poised by cold temps or debris strikes to the shuttle, with tragic consequences.


What did NASA do? After soul-searching, finger-pointing, and much investigation, they instituted and followed protocols to make sure such tragedies wouldn't happened again.  Obviously, lives were lost and would never be brought back. A proud American institution was rattled to the core. And guess what? They made a tragic mistake in 2003 with similar devastating consequences. Did NASA quit? Did mankind stop exploring? No. We know the rest of the story- a by-and-large wonderfully successful program emerged that had broad-reaching positive benefits for mankind. Despite failures caused by human error and misjudgment. 

Look, an aquarium or a spelling error on a forum post are not on par with disasters that resulted in deaths of humans, but the principles- and lessons to be learned- are much the same. As fish people, we can choose to beat ourselves up, listen to a few people who tell us we were stupid. Or we can face what happened,  look at what led up to the incident occurring in the first place, manage the consequences, and put procedures into place to assure that such errors never happen again.  We can show others that it is possible to make an error and recover. We can share our stories so that fellow hobbyists don’t make the same mistake. We can make a setback a net gain for ourselves and the hobby..We can emerge stronger and better as aquarists- and for that matter- as human beings. 

The great inventor, Thomas Edison, on the thousands of failed attempts to create a functional electric light bulb, made the famous and highly-applicable comment, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Talk about an optimist!

Think of all of the great innovations in society, technology, the arts..and in fishkeeping, for that matter- which arose as a result of…failure. A result of error. A result of screwing something up- and, rather than dwelling on the negative implications- putting a positive spin on things and moving forward to rise from the ashes of failure, emerging better and stronger than before- for the benefit of others, as well as the individual who perpetrated the error or committed the act of failure.

I submit to you that our aquarium-keeping mistakes are sometimes tragic, often expensive, always frustrating- but never wasted…IF we face them, learn from them-and share the experience with others. In reality, no mistake is ever wasted in life. It can always serve as an example of what NOT to do, a la Edison.

The history of Tannin in its "pre-business" days was filed with disasters, as we determined what would work and what wouldn't. We tried all sorts of stuff, different procedures, some with tragic consequences, and someone with wonderful results, before ever making our materials available to you. In the context of "R and D", "failure" just goes with the territory. It's part of responsibility.

One of my personal icons, Steve Jobs, knew of failure, both before and during his tenure at Apple. In fact, he was actually fired- fired- can you imagine firing the guy?- from Apple. Dumped by the company he literally co-founded in a garage.  As you can imagine, he was devastated- humiliated…felt like a failure. Did he hang it up? Of course not, as he later famously related in a Stanford commencement speech:

“I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,”



As Jobs intimated so well, the takeaway from failure is the opportunity to rebound and innovate- stronger than before, flush with the hard-won knowledge that can only come from learning by, well- screwing up. Taking ownership of our mistakes is a pillar of aquarium-keeping technique and philosophy. Everyone screws up in this hobby. Everyone fails. Everyone does something contrary to what they know to be correct.


However, it’s the truly successful aquarist- and human being- who, rather than dwelling on failure, moves on to learn from it. Rises from the ashes to correct it. Shakse off the humiliating cloak of failure, only to don the shiny, freshly-pressed garment of success. 

 Not everyone can do it. Everyone should…

If the aquarium hobby were easy, we wouldn’t have forums filled with “how to’s”, and vendors wouldn’t stock medication, test gear, electronic controllers, ‘scaping tools. You wouldn’t need to take corrective actions when your water parameters head south, because they never would. You wouldn’t need to tear apart your aquascape to move the fish that you knew would bully everything else in your aquarium, yet you tried anyways-becuase you wouldn't have needed to experiment in the first place.

I think I’ll give my friend a call this week, just to check in. I think I’ll let her know that what she did- although tragic in the short term- was one of the best things she could have done. Yeah, really. I’ll let her know that if she learns never to make the same mistake again- and more important- shares her mistake and the actions she took to correct it with others- that the tragic incident was in actuality one of the greatest experiences of her aquarium-keeping "career." If it helps just one other hobbyist avoid the same mistake, then the cliche about the hapless fishes not dying in vain really does hold water.

And to you, the readers of my forum post: Do you know that “Cardnal Tetra” really is a “Cardinal Tetra?” Does the fact that I typed “Geafagus” instead of “Geophagus”  mean that you will forever look at my company with a jaundiced eye and never buy from us again? Maybe. Maybe not. I would like to think it wouldn’t drive you away, but hey-that’s your call.  I have to tell you that, reflecting back on it, I'm occasionally still a bit upset with myself…On the other hand, at the risk of sounding a bit, well- arrogant- I’m actually kind of happy that I screwed up. Yeah. Why? Because I don’t like the feeling screwing up left me with, and I don’t want to feel it again…and that feeling will push me to do better and hold myself to higher standards. (until the next blog riddled with typos goes out, lol)

Oh, and the site with the error-filled blog?

It folded soon afterwards, lol. Maybe it worked out okay anyways? Maybe I caused it to fold? Nah. But really ironic, wouldn't you say?

Of course, being human, you know that I’m bound to screw up again at some point in the future. But it’s okay. I still believe in myself. I will still learn. I will still improve. Oh, and just because we acknowledge and “own” our failures doesn’t mean that we can hold ourselves to lower standards.

It just means that we need to be a bit more aware of the possibilities of doing something in a manner that we know might be detrimental. 

And to you, the one hobbyist who though he was going to be the ONE person who could create a substrate consisting entirely of Java Fern, or you, THAT hobbyist who decided that it’s okay to build the open-top river tank with 30,000 gallons per hour of flow and a surge system located above that really expensive hardwood floor…I wish you all the success…or, at least, I wish you a pleasant journey towards success as your recover from a setback.

Your bravery, heart, optimism and tenacity exemplify the best traits of today’s aquarium hobbyists, and human beings.

So, stay with it. Be kind to yourself, and patient with others. 

Stay proud. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Stay calm.

And most important of all…


Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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