I've spent the last few weeks working on a tank in our office. And, with every build comes the usual considerations: "theme", budget constraints, equipment choices, aesthetics, power consumption, etc., etc. And, with every build, us fish geeks tend to look at things as if this is our new chance to "get it right", as if somehow, all of the previous tanks we've built were part of a buildup to this ultimate achievement! Now, that's not an entirely unhealthy thing; I mean, we always strive to improve, to learn from past mistakes, and to constantly work at perfecting our craft. There is nothing wrong with a little self improvement, right?
I was talking with a fellow hobbyist the other day who was building his "ultimate" biotope aquarium, and was doing a lot of incredible stuff, but seemed to not really be enjoying the process. In fact, he made it seem like it was a "job"- like the aquarium world had some level of expectation about his effort that he just HAD to hit.
This was/is a real problem...One that is not all that uncommon in this hyper-connected world, where ideas fly across the internet in minutes. Amazing stuff is everywhere.
The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to overreach at times in our attempts to create what we see as "perfection." We sometimes tend to push too hard in terms of how we do things, the equipment we select, and the methods we choose. We put too much pressure on achieving some prescribed result, and overlook the fun of this whole thing. I know that I have done this before over the years- sometimes with good results, but often with unintended, less-than-favorable effects.
During my most recent tank builds, rather than pushing myself to the limits of capability, technology, and budget just because it's whats expected by "everyone" , I spent more time enjoying the process; thinking about what gives me the most pleasure in fishkeeping, and how I can design my systems to provide that experience for me-and health for my animals. I mean, it's a hobby, right? It's supposed to be fun. Aquarium keeping is not like any other hobby- it's an obsession for many, an expression of ourselves, and often a lifestyle as well.
That's all well and good, but, after a lifetime in the game, I'm finally able to reflect back on my experiences in the hobby and truly put my mind into a mode of "I can really enjoy this for the right reasons!" A personal breakthrough, if nothing else! Took me a while to get there, too! I figured I'd share my little "epiphanies" with you, as I actually learned some things during the past few years that have helped me enjoy the hobby more than ever! And, just perhaps- they will benefit you...Or, perhaps they'll demonstrate just how far off the deep end I went!
Either way, as always, I'm sharing my experiences/thoughts/ideas with you in the hope that it might just touch a few of you who occasionally (like me) tend to take this stuff a bit too seriously, and risk losing the enjoyment that we're supposed to derive from the aquarium hobby. I've broken these little personal discoveries down into a few points. Hopefully, they don't come across as arrogant or overly-preachy- not the point. The point was to share some valuable things that have made a world of difference to me.
Of course, we might need to think about what "successful" actually means in this context. to some of us, just having a tank that holds water in our home without leaking is a "score!" For others, it needs to hit on a whole litany of points. For still others, a "successful" aquarium experience means to win accolades and peer approval- you know, the whole "Tank of The Millenium" prize or aquascaping title that more than one hobbyist I know has coveted. The term "successful" is really a personal context, I suppose.
So, without further pomp and circumstance, in no particular order- here are some things I've learned over the years that helped me create a much happier hobby experience:
Stop trying to create the perfect tank from the start...it will evolve- Yeah, it does happen. We talk about "evolving" our blackwater/botanical-style tanks all the time, right? You don't need a "finished product" worthy of peer accolades and contest trophies right from the start (or ever, but that's a different point). Great tanks evolve over time. Biofilms, algae, and that "patina" of tannins take time to wax and wane. Leaves can take time to soften, and plants and fishes take a long time to settle in. Water chemistry parameters take some time to get dialed in. In short, you can't rush nature- nor would you want to. Part of the fun is watching things evolve over time.
Yet, we often like to accelerate this pace, for reasons not easily defined.
For many hobbyists, we get into this "collector's mode", obsessively acquiring as many different animals as we can find- sometimes because we love them, and other times, because they are the "hot thing" at the time. I see this in the reef hobby, especially. For many, if you honestly assess your motives, you may find that your source of enjoyment in the hobby is simply the process of acquiring stuff- the "thrill of the hunt." Nothing wrong with that, but something worth noting. For others, it's a about growing the fishes and plants; evolving the system.
For all of us, it should be about letting nature run its course, as it has for eons, and perhaps, helping it along a bit in our closed systems.
See challenges like algae issues, parameter control, etc. as opportunities to improve your "mindset" and your skills- It may seem utterly ridiculous when there is green slime on your sand, gooey filamentous algae covering your botanicals, and diatoms all over the aquarium walls, but if you actually take the mindset of "Here is a chance to be patient. Here is a chance to figure out what is really happening...is this all bad- or just a normal part of the evolution of an aquarium?" If you don't freak out, you may just come ot of challenges with a better attitude and greater skill.
Yeah, really, the old "when life gives you lemons..." mindset works well in aquarium keeping. Because it's not a matter of IF you'll have some challenges- it's a matter of WHEN. They come with the territory; living creatures in closed systems and such always throw us the proverbial "curveballs." Everyone freaks out- it's human nature. However, the TRULY successful hobbyists is the one who gathers his/her wits, observes what's going on and how it occurred, and tries to figure out what to do about it so that it doesn't happen again. Or to understand that it's NORMAL, and to just hold on for a bit longer... Don't just go 'through the experience' with a problem or challenge- LEARN from it and use it as a skill enhancer. And share it with others for the big win!
Don't over-analyze everything- I can see how one can easily be caught up in "analysis paralysis", spending tons of time chasing every parameter and freaking out over the slightest deviation. That's not a good attitude. In fact, it's nuts. Let's be honest- I think information about our water parameters is important- even vital. However, it's what you DO with the information that has the most impact.
Chasing numbers is a maddening obsession, and not the key to success. Fanatically keeping your aquarium's environment within your chosen parameters is not. Creating a beautiful, healthy aquarium is an amalgamation of many skills and factors. Obsessing over every single aspect of your tank is going to drive you crazy- if not out of the hobby- in record time. I've seen this repeatedly over the years with dozens of hobbyists. It's far better to set "target ranges" for aspects of your system's function, appearance, and environment, than it is to force yourself into rigid parameters.
And, for goodness sake, don't freak out over every weird noise, damaged fin on your Apisto, and bit of algae on your Amazon Sword. Sure, there are reasons for almost everything that happens in an aquarium, but you don't need to worry about every single one. I know a reeferkeeper who that thinks the world is coming to an end every time his protein skimmer goes out of whack- convinced that this is a sign of the "great reef apocalypse." Typically, rather, it's just a sign that he reached into the tank with a fresh algae scrub pad, or just fed some extra food. Not worth worrying about, unless signs of overt distress among the fishes or corals are obvious.
We try to relax- yet we watch, and we worry, and we ponder. Pondering is fine. Worrying is not good for your hobby experience-or your health. Don't worry so much! Enjoy.
Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks- This is a tough one for many hobbyists, in this internet-enabled, Instagram-fueled, Twitterized, forum-driven "postmodern era" of aquarium-keeping, we're literally besieged hourly by dozens of examples of "amazing" tank "build threads", DIY projects, fish and coral acquisition success stories, and assertions that THIS is the best way to succeed at keeping an aquarium. And, with the hobby community elevating various actively-posting fellow fish geeks to "near divine" status daily, we can easily feel not only humbled, but downright insignificant or irrelevant as fish geeks. This is a really bad thing to get sucked into.
I can't stress it enough: If you have a vision, and idea- a theory- and the ability to act upon it- DO IT! Don't listen to the naysayers, the followers, the sheep. There are always plenty of self-appointed "critics" hiding behind the security of their keyboards and a window with Google open- ready to show you a dozen reasons why what you're proposing is not going to work.
Yeah, there are always plenty of people heaping adoration on the hobbyists who seem to be doing "cool stuff"- tried and true, but maybe not the direction that your heart tells you to go. You're not in the aquarium hobby to impress anyone- let alone, the masses. You're probably in this hobby simply because you love keeping fishes, plants, and aquariums. These are the right reasons. Just because you may have a contrarian bent- an idea that seems to go against "conventional aquairum-thinking" (whatever that may be), doesn't mean that it's wrong, or no good, or not worth pursuing. In fact, that's all the more reason to go with your idea! So what if you may not be "popular?" So what if you take a few hits from "naysayers?" You're following your own road. The irony is, that by being successful at something radically different or previously out of fashion- you might just end up with the adoration that you previously scorned. Weird, huh?
Grit, passion, and determination can take you farther than style, money, and gadgets- Anyone can throw together an uber-pricy tank with all the latest gadgets, name-drop-able fishes, and crazy plant cultivars. Anyone can hire "experts" to make it for them. Anyone can talk a good game, get "likes" on social media, buy "followers" on Instagram, and play the hype game. Not everyone can create a great aquarium; one that takes time, patience, and the occasional dose of failure. One that embraces different thinking. Not everyone can rise from setbacks, mistakes, and outright catastrophes- and create an amazing aquarium, propagate that awesome coral, or breed that fish once though impossible. Only those who have the conviction, perseverance, and determination to follow through can do these things.
Don't for one minute think that your little tank with a pair of Bettas and a Java Fern Lis any less amazing or interesting than the 200 gallon reef tank that some well-heeled hobbyist somewhere is building and splashing all over the forums. Your effort, your drive- your love for the animals under your care is every bit as impressive- if not more so- than anything that all of the cash and flash can achieve.
It's always great to pause for just a moment to reflect how awesome this hobby really is, and how fortunate that we are to enjoy the gorgeous animals that we love so much. Always remember the amazing responsibility we shoulder as reefers to provide the best possible care for the animals under our care, and for their well-being.
And then, remember how fun this whole game really is- when you let your self enjoy it!
Have fun. Don't take the hobby too seriously.
Stay excited. Stay involved. Stay humble. Stay grateful.
And most important of all