"Successful failures?" A personal story of hobby persistency...

As a fish geek, you try a lot of ideas.

And not all of 'em work, right? Like the time you tried to create the "mud hole" for those Nothobranchius you acquired at the fish club auction, or the flooded Pantanal biotope you tried to do with those weeds you found out in the local field...you know, that kind of stuff.

Ideas which are really great, and executions which, well, needed some "evolution" to really work out nicely. I can't think of the number of "failures" that I've had occur with aquariums, only to realize that they were actually "micro successes"- little incremental skill-building, experience-gaining events, which served to move me further along the path towards ultimate success.

When I first started keeping blackwater aquariums, some (gulp) 30 years ago, I was utilizing the most commonly available materials ("available" in the fish world, that is...)- like peat moss and maybe leaves. And they worked to "tint" the water, but I could never get the pH of our Los Angeles tap water (which is like as hard and alkaline as you could imagine) to fall more than a point or two if I was lucky.

It took years of research (yeah, pre-Google, mind you) to figure out that the hardness of the water was preventing the peat and such from having any real impact on the pH...SO I had really sexy, tinted aquariums in 1979-1981 that had ridiculously high pH and hard water!). Then, around the mid 1980's, reef aquariums began rearing their heads, and the magazines started talking about "reverse osmosis" systems to soften water. They'd been around a while, but not in the aquarium world...Of course, I pleaded with my parents to get a water softener for the house, touting some kinds of human health benefits...my dad, a fellow fish geek, knew my ploy, however.

I had visions of blackwater streams, and would stop at nothing to achieve them!

Eventually, I was able to afford an RO unit, and finally, the  "soft, acidic water" exposed by Axelrod, LaCorte, etc. was attainable. Of course, further experimentation with different types of natural materials led to greater successes. Along the way, I had experienced a few setbacks- like poisoning my fishes, over-doing my botanical additions, etc. But I never viewed them as "failures" to a certain extent. Now, I don't want to sound callous, as there was some loss of life during my experiments...but I think that it steeled my resolve, rather than put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Like many of you, I learned to "perfect my craft" through a lot of trial and error. While I evolved into the reef aquarium world for a couple of decades, I always kept experimenting with my blackwater aquariums. I took a lot of the rapidly-developing technique and hardware available the reef world, and played with it in freshwater. I continuously iterated and tried new stuff. I screwed up a bunch..And I learned a lot, too! Those years were really important in the development of my hobby and aquatics industry experience. I learned the value of "aquatic cross-training", common sense, and just doing.

And failure and perseverance in the hobby also teaches you humility.

Yes, I was very well known in the reef world, speaking worldwide, writing- going to conferences, etc. All the fish geek fame that some people yearn for. It was cool, and helped me when we built up Unique Corals, which had an instant reputation and fanatical following in that sector of the hobby..

When I finally launched Tannin in 2015, and delved back into the freshwater world, the welcome wasn't always as warm and cozy as I was used to on the other side of the salinity line!  I would occasionally run into someone on a forum somewhere that would attack me as soon as I posted pics or ideas on blackwater tanks, proudly telling me that I didn't invent the idea....Which was insultingly stupid, as I never laid claim to that! I distinctly remember one guy literally telling me, "Hey reef rock star, what don't you stay in your fake world, where you actually know what you're doing!" (his words verbatim)

I didn't exactly receive a warm welcome.

But what was really cool is that, thanks to being in this game for so long, I couldn't give two f---ks about what anyone thought. I knew what I loved and that it was my passion... I wanted to do my thing and share what I knew, and evolve and attract like-minded hobbyists. By just doing my thing and ignoring haters, I knew we could evolve this obscure niche within the hobby.

And we did.

Sure, I still get the occasional hater, who tells me that I'm not the only place to get leaves and such, and that you can collect you own, and that their friend's new brand is going to blow Tannin out of he water, and...blah, blah, blah.

Whatever. You can't let that kind of stuff get to you. 

Hate and submission are the true enemies of innovation.

Try things. Screw them up. Tweak them. Learn from them. Change them. 

Everyone wins.

The point of this semi-autobiographical essay is that setbacks, attacks, criticisms...all of that stuff is secondary to just doing. To just learning your craft, perfecting technique, and sharing what you love. The only "failure", in my opinion, is when we are brow-beaten or intimidated by "them" into NOT following our passions and doing what we know to be our thing. 

So, the idea of "successful failures" is a huge part of what we do in the hobby- and when we embrace and own them, magic happens.

Stay bold. Stay unwavering. Stay curious. Stay passionate. Stay persistent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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