I've been doing a lot more "fish travel" over the past couple of months- visiting and speaking at local aquarium clubs...getting valuable feedback and interaction with all sorts of hobbyists, business owners, and well-known aquarists. The inspiration for today's little piece comes from talking to a bunch of fellow fish geeks whom I've been chatting with in my travels and have brought up the subject of "experts" and the pursuit of knowledge in the hobby. It caused me to reflect on my personal views of this topic based on my experiences.
("Scott Fellman, aquarium expert" YIKES)
As I've probably mentioned, in the “reef” end of the hobby, my name is pretty well known, as a hobbyist, author, and business owner. I’ve authored a ton of articles and lectured at clubs and events internationally, and at the major hobby conferences (MACNA, etc.) for years. The company I formerly co-owned, Unique Corals, is extremely well regarded in the “reef” world. Often, when I've given talks around the country, I've been occasionally referred to as "EXPERT aquarist Scott Fellman"- YIKES! I kinda feel gross every time I hear that term bandied about. More recently, I hear "blackwater aquarium expert" added to my "title"- and I kind of laugh...It's a pretty serious term.
These recent conversations made me think about what a real "expert" is in the aquarium hobby...and the traits they possess which they won't just tell you about.
As a hardcore aquarium 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 fish-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” aquarium people seem to lead by actions, not by words.
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 mixed 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 hobby-related, and is glaringly obvious when you see his/her aquarium!. 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” hobbyists know a little about a lot of things, and maybe a lot about one or two things. As an old college professor of mine once said, “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less…”
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” hobbyist knows that there are no shortcuts to success.
When you check out the “expert” hobbyist’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 expert hobbyists 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 hobbyist 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” hobbyists 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 Plecos 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. You’ll rarely see him/her namedropping and bragging about the pint-sized fry of that hot Mbuna or Rainbowfish species. Rather, you’ll hear them go on and on about the fish that he or she likes, and find out that the reason it’s in his/her tank is because he or she loves the fish! It’s the way things should be in the reef side of the hobby, too- keep certain corals because you like them- not because everyone will think that you’re cool because you paid $600 for a 1/2” specimen of some “trendy” new species (that, in reality, is probably available from multiple vendors that just haven't identified the darned thing yet and don't realize that they have this month’s “flavor of the month.”). No one is really that impressed. Well, know one who understands the hobby, anyways. Expert hobbyists just know that money doesn’t buy happiness, success, or “street creed” in the aquarium scene. It just buys…stuff.
The real “expert” hobbyist makes it a point to understand the needs of each fish or plant before it ends up in his or her tank. Sure, they will make mistake along the way, but most “expert” hobbyists 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 aquarium keeping…Egg clutches develop fungus, or Plants have “anomalous” growth-arresting 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, redundancies in your system design, and with fry of prized specimens “vetted out” to other hobbyist- 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” hobbyist that fellow reefers come out of the woodwork to help? It’s not just because the hobbyist is well known- it’s because he or she has taken the time to cultivate relationships and friendships with other hobbyists- to nurture them and assist with their developing hobby. The realization that we don’t exist in a vacuum has helped more than one hobbyist move from rank beginner to “expert”, believe me.
The “expert” hobbyist 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” hobbyist 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” hobbyist 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...