Finding your own lane: The real "Mental Shift!"


Okay, I"m going to use the phrase, "mental shift" for like the 30,000 time here in the last 7 years, but I think that it's pretty important. 

I've seen several friends and fellow hobbyists "find their lane" in the aquarium hobby lately, and it's been truly remarkable to see. Watching others be delighted by things which they might have never even considered, and then seeing how they resonate, is an amazing thing. Truly inspiring.

I was looking at my latest botanical method aquarium the other day, and literally admiring the fungal growth and biofilms emerging from the wood, and lightly coating som of the leaves on the surface of the sedimented substrate. I was savoring the tinted water with a slight "haze", likely the result of a combination of super fine constituents from the substrate, and some organics from the wood and leaves.

And I though to myself, "Damn, this one is looking perfect!"

How far I've come, to the point where what many consider absolutely horrifying and aesthetically nightmarish, is to me, an amazing expression of Nature at it's most authentic. Like, I remember setting in the wood and such in the first days of this tank and being sort of repulsed by how harsh and sterile it felt before the wood was colonized and the water began to tint up and go slightly turbid. It felt...I dunno- a bit "unnatural."

Minutes later, as I was scrolling through what I could only characterize as the bland "sameness" of all of the perfectly manicured, spotlessly sterile-looking "Nature Aquariums" which seem to populate my Instagram feed, I once again had that realization about just how far I'd come as a hobbyist, in terms of what I find compelling, interesting, and attractive. 

To me, there is sheer joy in seeing the things which arise in wild aquatic habitats (biofilms, fungal growths, decomposition, etc.) occurring in my tanks. It's like a little victory when Nature makes Her appearance! I find myself watching videos or glancing at images of the wild aquatic habitats which inspire me, and feeling this incredible sense of satisfaction at the parallels I've experienced- at the "blurring of the lines" between Nature and aquarium that I helped foster.

Now, that's not to say that I don't enjoy looking at the work of the many talented aquascapers out there who specializing in the artistic, highly conceptual stye. I appreciate a beautifully done planted aquarium, Iwagumi, or rocky hardscape as much as anyone. Hell, I've gone so far as to state that if one of my "superstar" aquascaping friends pops into Los Angeles for a few days, and wants to set up one of these tanks up for me in my home, I wouldn't complain!

I just have no desire to do one myself. None whatsoever.

I've found my lane. 

I know what speaks to me; what I enjoy, and why.

That's really powerful. It feels great.

After a lifetime in the aquarium hobby, I've found  the things which I like, and practice them without concern about what anyone thinks, or how I will be judged, or the type of armchair analysis that my aquariums will be subject to. To put it in rather simple, direct terms, I simply couldn't care less what others think of my work. I do it for me. Oh, and to push the limits of the botanical method. And if it inspires other hobbyists to do similar things, that's a huge win.

This is a very healthy attitude for everyone to embrace. I barely hear the accolades we receive for this stuff, and completely disregard any negative comments. Tell me that what we do is "stupid", and "ugly", and "sloppy." (All "criticisms" which I've heard over the years...) I just don't care. I cannot stress this enough. I will, however, push back when someone makes a comment which incorrectly implies that what we do is messy or reckless or dangerous or whatever, because it's just plain wrong. We don't want people perpetuating incorrect information about this stuff.

Those kind of "criticisms" from those who have limited knowledge of a subject, yet feel compelled to shit on others, have for years thwarted hobbyists from trying things outside of the "generally accepted norms", and it's time for that nonsense to stop. Perpetuating myths about various hobby topics which the "critic" has no firsthand experience with hurts everyone. Regurgitation of misinformation is damaging. I see those negative comments as opportunities to educate people about what we do, and why it is incredible...

We all should.

In today's "Insta-famous" world of viral videos and over-the-top ideas, where everyone fancies themselves an "influencer", it's nice to feel that sense of comfort that you get when you know that you're doing exactly what you love the most. I hope that every hobbyist can feel this! It's satisfying, liberating, and incredibly enjoyable.

It's healthy.

Besides, if everyone is an "influencer", who's actually doing stuff? 

I get a lot of questions from hobbyists of all ages who are intimidated or concerned by "them" or "they" on social media. Worried about how their work will be received and analyzed. Hobbyists who are held back because they feel that the comments and criticisms of others are going to somehow "ruin" them.

That's unhealthy.

Realize that, when you're doing exactly what you want- what you love- that none of this stuff matters. Criticisms will keep coming...

I experienced this a lot in the early days of Tannin Aquatics. A number of people literally told me that the idea of utilizing all of this botanical material to replicate habitats like the igapo and varzea and such in closed systems would lead to polluted tanks, wildly fluctuating environmental parameters, and fish death.

Having created numerous systems based on the concept over the years, I pressed on- stubbornly. Because I knew that there was merit and benefit to what I was doing. And, thanks to all of you- the brave hobbyists who also shared our vision- we've seen a worldwide renaissance in the idea of utilizing botanical materials to create functional habitats in our aquariums.

It would have been so easy to just fade away if I listened to the negativity.

But, hey- this is not about me and how cool I am. That was just a personal example of this phenomenon!

I've written about this "negativity" stuff before over the years, and still talk about it in in my lectures, because it's an issue that doesn't always seem to go away.

Why? What causes people to criticize and discourage others so strongly in this hobby? It's kind of weird...

It's like there are some people who simply feel compelled to sabotage the well-intentioned, yet progressive efforts of others. It's like they're afraid to see others succeed or change what's become comfortable for them. I imagine this is what people felt when they first introduced TV and people didn't want to give up their radios, or whatever.

Yeah, I can't help wonder if it's fear. Really.

Fear of change. Fear of not being "the expert" on something. I'm not sure. But it's a thing we have seen many times in the hobby. It's usually just a few loud people, but they can do surprisingly large amounts of damage thanks to the utility of the internet and the power and reach of social media.

So, what's the "antidote" to this nonsense? 

Just don't listen to the noise.

And for those of you who are pioneering new ideas?

Look, there is always someone who has to be the first to accomplish something great and new and different. Someone who can overlook the negativity and "smack talk", to fly in the face of convention while taking that road less traveled. Someone who has to shake off the "taboo" fears created by others. To move forward, despite the "criticisms."

This is how we progress. This is how we will continue to progress in the hobby.

And more important, this is how we inspire a new generation of hobbyists to follow our lead, for the benefit of both the hobby and the animals that we enjoy. Nor can we dispense advice to fellow hobbyists with a dogmatic attitude that discourages progress and responsible experimentation. It will simply stagnate the progress of the hobby we all love.

Just be you. Be cool. be authentic and honest. 

I’m not advocating the abandonment of common sense and healthy skepticism. Everyone should not make a mad dash to the LFS to assemble schools of Black Diamond Stingrays.

What I AM pushing is that we (and by “we”, I mean every one of us in the hobby) should encourage fellow hobbyists who want to experiment and question conventional wisdom to follow their dreams. If someone has an idea- a theory, and some good basic hobby experience, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Yes, there is the sad fact that some animals might be lost in the process. It sucks. It’s hard to reconcile that…and harder to stand by it when animals are dying.

However, that may be the cost of progress.

The cost of not progressing might be far higher: The loss of countless species in the wild whose habitats are being destroyed, while those of us with some skills, dreams, ideas, and respect for the fishes sit by idly -watching them perish, failing to even attempt captive husbandry and propagation for fear of criticism and failure from the masses.

There has been very real talk over the years about making the importation, and possibly the distribution- of live corals and some fishes illegal in many nations. It's not that unrealistic a possibility. Who knows what opportunities might be missed if we fail to even persue our goals?

So, yeah. it's bigger than just not wanting to post pictures of our new tanks on Instagram or whatever. for fear of criticism. Not making the biggest mental shift of all- the one which enables you to find-and stay- in your own lane- creates a vacuum of progress and progression which can cause stagnation.

So, don't fear the criticisms. Don't worry about the naysayers. Don't fall for the negativity. Don't be discouraged. Ever.

Stay bold. Stay strong. Stay committed. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay in your own lane...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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