The benefits of a "mental rewind..."

The hobby of aquarium keeping is a journey, at its very heart, isn't it?

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 know, that kind of stuff!

Ideas which are really great, and executions which, well, needed some "evolution" to really work out nicely. And just because they may not have accomplished what you wanted right from the get-go doesn't mean that these things were" failures."


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 purify/soften source 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 dad, a fellow fish geek, knew my ploy, however.

I had visions of pristine tropical reefs and 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.  I couldn't just stop at good "base water" parameters, right?

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 shit.

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


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

Everyone wins.

Taking an attitude that it's not the end of the world if you fail is pretty healthy! Beginners in the aquarium hobby are happy just to win a simple victory- just to keep fishes alive. They take joy in things we likely take completely for granted...

Perhaps the beginner knows something we don't.

I think I- we- that is, more "advanced" hobbyists...often "know" too much. Or at least- we think that we do.


And I don't mean that from an arrogant perspective or anything.

I think that I, like so many hobbyists at my level- your level- of experience, sometimes  tend to overthink every aspect of the aquarium hobby, particularly during the new tank startup phase, rather than just letting ourselves enjoy the moment- the wonder, and the awe that comes from doing something special, beautiful, and, let's face it- incredibly cool!

I mean, setting up a slice of Nature in your own home?

This IS something amazing, huh? 

Something that nine tenths of the world will never get to experience or even comprehend.

And perhaps- just maybe...we know too much.


We understand all of this stuff. Or she we think.

We experienced it many times over the years, and have watched- and even reassured- others that "All of this is normal" and to, "Just be patient and it will pass..."

You know- "aquarium stuff."

Outright beginners actually have it much easier in this regard, I think.

I mean, when just having a glass or acrylic box of  freshwater or saltwater in your home is a novelty- a cause for rejoicing! You tend to live in a bubble of gentle "ignorance" (eeehw- that's kind of harsh)- okay, let's call it "blissful lack of awareness about some things" that some of this stuff really sucks...

And that's actually a beautiful thing- because a beginner is taken by the sheer wonder- and joy of it all. They don't stress out about stuff like algal films, detritus on the substrate, micro bubbles and the occasional falling piece of wood in their aquascape. 

They're not worried about that yucky algae or water moment or any other of a dozen minutae like we are, because they don't KNOW that it can linger a long, long time if you don't manage the tank correctly at this phase.

No biggie. Not at the moment.

They're not "handcuffed" by their past experiences and the knowledge of having set up dozens of tanks over the years. Rather, they're just stoked as all get out by the thought of Lowlight Tetras, Amano Shrimp, Glass Catfish, and "ultra-common" Bettas taking up residence in the new little utopian microhabitat they just set up in their New York City apartment.

I think it's entirely possible to release ourselves from the "burden" of our own experience, and to allow ourselves to enjoy every aspect of this great hobby, free from preconception or prejudices. To just make decisions based on what our research- gut, or yeah- I suppose, experience- tells us is the "right" thing to do, then letting stuff happen.

In other words, taking control of the influence that our own experience provides, rather than allowing it to taint our whole journey with doubt, dogma, second-guessing, and over-analysis of every single aspect.

And just relaxing.

Embracing the sheer joy of being a beginner. Again.

Sounds like fun to me.

We should all try it some time.

The point of this semi-autobiographical essay and the recommendation to adapt part of a "beginner's mindset" is to understand that that setbacks, attacks, criticisms...all of that stuff is secondary to just doing.

A "mental rewind", if you will.

Secondary 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. That's where the growth and advancement comes.

The learning. 

The excitement.

That's the really cool part.

Stay diligent. Stay bold. Stay unwavering. Stay curious. Stay passionate. Stay persistent. Stay patient..

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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