Almost everything I needed to know about life, I learned from my aquariums...
Ok, that sounds kind of insane, actually. And, in some corners, it might be. On the other hand...maybe there is more to this than you might think at first thought.
Yet when you think about it, an aquarium aquarium can teach you a lot about life. Those little pearls of wisdom that we acquire as we play with our tanks can have real impact on the rest of our life.
Let’s look at these “lessons” a bit closer, and if you don’t agree- then you can tell me that I’m crazy!
Lesson One - Stay Focused - When building and managing your aquarium, you’ll come to the realization that it’s hard to balance what you need to be doing with what you have the time, energy, and resources to actually do. Sure, you should be changing water every week, but you have that little distraction called life that may get in the way. And that’s okay. Your family and relationships are more important than your tank. We know this, right? Yup. However, I just said it, anyways. Don’t lose focus on what’s really important.
Focus on quality, not quantity in your tank management. Better to do a few things great than many things poorly. Seriously. Prioritize what needs attention more at certain times. Filtration? Algae scraping. Plant trimming? Things will ebb and flow and you can tackle every single one of your aquarium keeping dreams and ambitions. You just don’t need to do them all at the same time!
Lesson Two- Practice Patience- I know that in my personal life, I’d hardly be given the moniker of “patient”, but in my aquarium keeping work, it’s my mantra! Sure, like everyone else, I want a lush, established aquarium as quickly as possible. However, I found out the hard way through many years of aquarium keeping that the old cliche about not rushing things holds true. An aquarium is a biological system, and it follows eons-old natural patterns of function and process.
You can’t rush it. Oh, sure, you can “seed” your aquarium with biological material to speed up the cycling process, and you can grow your plants a bit faster with frequent water changes, feeding, and trace element replenishment...But it can only go so fast. Why not follow those good practices, but expect- and enjoy- a slower, more measured pace of growth in your tank? Patience is about understanding what steps it’s going to take to get you where you want to be, and measuring and evaluating your progress along the way. Eventually, you’ll get there. And you’ll probably find the journey every bit as enjoyable as the destination. Trust me.
Lesson Three- Be true to yourself as an aquarist - Huh? What I’m getting at here is that you should love being who you are as an aquarist! Sounds like “psychobabble”, but it’s true! Your greatest hobby successes will come when you practice being the type of hobbyist you are. Just because everyone is infatuated with Cichlids and you love Killifishes does not mean that you’re not a “cool” hobbyist. There are so many angles to this hobby it isn’t even funny. Love what you specialize in, and share what you know with fellow fish geeks.
If you have no interest- or worse yet- no clue- about "dirted tanks" or Rainbowfishes, for example- then don’t get on the message boards and start preaching the gospel of potting mix to fellow hobbyists. What I call “regurgitation”- the act of ranting authoritatively about stuff you may have heard of but have not practiced- is really unhelpful to the rest of the aquarium keeping world. Be proud of your aquarium, your experience, and the type of reefer you are. Share selflessly, and play to your strengths. Push yourself, evolve, adapt, flow. But above all, be yourself.
Lesson Four- Count on Your “Peeps” - It’s crucial to have other hobbyists to turn to when things get tough. Sure, you can be a free thinking aquarist- but don’t go it alone. You’re not an island. Reach out on the message boards and consult other hobbyists. Not only will you learn more and have a good time with your hobby- you might just end up making lifelong friends! Build relationships, and seek out friends, experts and cheerleaders when you need them. It’s a smarter, more effective way to succeed in the hobby.
Join the local aquarium club, or start one if there isn’t one in your area. Hang out at your local fish store. It’s the literal “watering hole” for your local hobby experience. Not only will you be supporting a good cause (your local brick and mortar store), you’ll be making valuable aquarium keeping connections that will provide great pleasure. Of course, you can join one of the many friendly aquarium communities Facebook, and connect with fellow fish geeks all over the planet. Cultivating friendships is a great little investment in your hobby-and your life- that will pay huge dividends down the line.
Lesson Five- Learn to Stop - Apparently, Im not alone: Many aquarists just never learned how to say "no" gracefully! This is evidenced by the many 120 gallon aquariums containing every conceivable type of cichlid, barb, loach and tetra known to the hobby! This is a real problem, as it can lead to an overcrowded, biologically mismatched aquarium population at best (You reefer types should do a Google search on “allelopathy”), and total disaster at the worst! We all know this...The solution is to excercise restraint. Just say “NO” sometimes!
You can always get another aquarium at some point (the whole “Multiple Tank Syndrome” experience) if you want to try keeping widely divergent animals together without bloodshed. You just don’t want to go down this path, adding every conceivable animal to your aquarium. If you’re so busy saying “yes” to all of the wrong animals, when are you going to have the space for the right ones when they come along?
Lesson Six- Face Your Fears - Good heavens, get out of your comfort zone once in a while. I’m not saying to try to set up a 400 gallon "non-photosynthetic reef aquarium just to prove that you’re a badass...What I am saying is that you should try something different from the tried-and true sometime. Keep that slightly-less-than-super-hardy Gourami if you have the hunch that you can do it. Great things can happen when you push through the fear. Put your experience, intuition, and observational powers to the test. You might be the first person to breed that weird little Loach that you have a secret fetish about. You may be the one person that figured out how to keep that uber-delicate wild Pipefish alive and thriving.
I’m not advising you to gamble with the life of a helpless animal in order to vanquish your fears. What I am suggesting is that you should play the occasional hunch and push yourself a bit. When you feel you are capable - take a chance. The benefits to you- and to the hobby- might be incalculable.
Lesson Seven- Lighten Up! - You heard me! Have some fun! This hobby is not supposed to be a peer-pressure-ridden pressure cooker with impossible-to-meet challenges and goals. You aren’t required to have a perfect aquascape that some self appointed “demigod” would approve of. You don’t need to be doing all of the same things that the guy in Holland with a 29,000 liter aquarium is doing. You don’t, and you probably can’t - so why sweat it? Enjoy your aquarium, no matter what size, what type of animals you keep, and how it looks. Laugh at the fact that you get all excited about decomposing leaves on your aquarium, or that you keep stinky frozen foods in your freezer, right next to the ice cream. Take pride in the fact that you are one of a select group of people that keep some of nature’s most amazing creatures alive outside of their natural habitat. Not only alive- but thriving!
When you screw up- and you will - accept the consequences with grace and humor. Laugh about it. Share the mistakes and foibles with fellow fish geeks. You’re probably not the only one who nuked his or her aquarium with phosphate remover, or accidentally introduced a few sprigs of Duckweed into your prized planted tank. So smile...That which doesn’t kill our enthusiasm for the hobby makes us a better aquarist. Perhaps less financially solvent- but better for the journey!
My hope here is that you once again realize that an aquarium is not just a pleasant diversion; a fun hobby- it can be a lifelong passion, a teaching tool for the entire family. And perhaps, most underrated of all - an aquarium can serve as a beautiful classroom for some of the larger mysteries of life. It sounds almost bizzare, but I believe it to be true when I say that almost everything I needed to know about life, I learned from my aquariums. Almost everything. I still haven’t figured what makes women tick. And how to do those little Chinese finger puzzles, or how to flip pizza dough, or...
Until next time...get philosophical once in a while...
Stay enthusiastic. Stay appreciative. Stay focused.
And stay wet.