Lessons from water...

The beauty of this hobby is that you can go in so many different directions- try so many different things, and always learn new stuff...And there are amazing things that your aquarium can teach you about life itself!


I woke up in a philosophical mode today, which, as you know, is often dangerous, as it means I'll either write about something insanely esoteric ("How the health of your Apistogramma  can affect your wife's clothes-buying decisions") or rather direct ("How to get superglue off of your fingers"), or downright devisive ("Why every other botanical vendor besides Tannin Aquatics is stupid and unprofessional...")... I mean, no one else in the aquarium world writes about the kind of nonsense I do, huh? Weird.

Fortunately, I did get a decent night's sleep, and I'm sitting on my Yoga mat ready to proffer my two cents worth on your life as a fish geek...

Cue relaxing New Age sitar music...

Today, Young Grasshopper, we're going to talk about how your aquarium experience can teach you about life...

Ok, that sounds kind of insane, actually.

Yet when you think about it, an 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 fish. Yup. I just said it. 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. Botanical replacement? Things will ebb and flow and you can tackle every single one of your fish-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 aquairum-keeping work, it's my mantra! It can take me months to go from having a tank in my home to having a tank in my home with plumbing, and months more to having a tank in my home with plumbing and water. Sure, like everyone else, I want a lush, colorful 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. Editing is a beautiful thing (although, by the way I write, you'd never know that, huh?). Eventually, you'll get "there." And you'll probably find the journey every bit as enjoyable as the destination. Trust me.

Lesson Three- Be an Authentic Aquarist - Huh? What I'm getting at here is that you should love being who you are as a fish geek! Sounds like 'psychobabble", but it's true! Your greatest aquairum-keeping successes will come when you practice being the type of hobbyist you are. Just because everyone is infatuated with Places and you love wild Bettas does not mean that you're not a "cool" hobbyist.  Truest me, for years I was keeping "dirty-looking" brown tanks and facing lots of criticism and questions before people realized what was going on...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 fert dosing, for example- then don' get on the forums and start preaching the gospel of certain brands or techniques 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 aquairum-keeping world. It's how lots of bad trends started. Be proud of your aquarium, your experience, and the type of hobbyist 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. An atoll, maybe. But not an island. Err..nevermind. (bad fish geek humor) Reach out on the forums and consult other hobbyists. I think this Facebook thing might just work. 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 even "cheerleaders" when you need them. It's a smarter, more effective way to succeed in the hobby. And, I must admit, it's kind of fun.

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 on line, 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 fish geeks just never learned how to say "no" gracefully! This is evidenced by the many 120-gallon aquariums containing every conceivable type of fish and plant known to the hobby! This is a real problem with practical implications, as it can lead to an overcrowded, biologically mismatched  population at best, and total disaster at the worst! For that matter, more than one domestic relationship has been impacted by what my friend, reefer/author Tony Vargas aptly calls "The Spouse Factor." The solution is to excercise restraint. Just say NO sometimes!

It works with developing an aquarium in your home, and it works with stocking the aquarium, too...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 700 gallon aquarium just to prove that you're a bad-ass...What I am saying is that you should try something different from the tried-and true sometime. Keep that slightly-less-than-super-hardy Geophagus 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 brackish-water goby that you have a secret fetish about. You may be the one person that figured out how to keep that uber-delicate blackwater Cryptocoryne 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. If it weren't for the brave folks like Jack Wattley, we would probably just now be realizing a viable market for commercially-bred Discus! If someone like Matt Wittenrich didn't take a chance trying to breed dozens of varieties of marine fish, we might be stuck with Clownfish as our only captive-bred marine fish option. If a guy like George Farmer didn't push himself to try all sorts of new aquascaping challenges, think of the inspiration we as a community would have not received...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 aquarium system that some self appointed "hobby 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? Jumping on the bandwagon just because "all of the kids are doing it" isn't really that cool, anyways. Trust me. 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 worked up about little snails on your Madagascar Lace Plants, or that you keep stinky frozen foods in your freezer, right next to the Haagen-Dazs. Take pride in the fact that you are one of a select group of people that keep and breed some of nature's most amazing creatures alive outside of their natural habitat. Not only alive- but thriving! Craziness.

When you screw up- and you will - accept the consequences with grace and humor. Laugh about it. Share the mistakes and foibles with fellow reef geeks. You're probably not the only one who nuked his or her aquarium with plant food, or added two male Apistos by mistake, or who used the wrong-sized tubing and flooded his/her carpet.. so smile...That which doesn't kill our enthusiasm for the hobby makes us a better hobbyist. Perhaps less financially solvent- but better for the journey!

My hope here is that you 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 "everything I needed to know about life, I learned from my aquairum." Ok, almost everything. I still haven't figured out exactly what makes women tick. And how to program my Apex controller, or how to flip pizza dough, or...

So, until next time. Lighten up!

Stay focused. Stay enthusiastic. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay happy..

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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