The danger of over specialization.

I know, I'm a bit opinionated about a lot of hobby topics! Annoyingly so, at times.

It's sort of my "trademark." And my opinions are often based upon my own experience, or the experience I've had observing others. And on occasion, my opinions are based upon queries that others bring to me.

For instance...

I've had no less than 6 different hobbyists- all apparently experienced and successful- tell me that they are "bored", "fed up with", or otherwise "discouraged" (all their words) about the hobby, for various reasons.

All in the last 2 months. 

I couldn't help but see this as some sort of "mini trend!"

And not a good one, either. So, I tried to sort of analyze what's going on; what commonalities these 6 talented people had that made them unhappy with their hobby experience. After a lot of thought and discussion with them, I think I know what it is.

It turns out that the stuff that was causing them grief were aspects of the hobby which they not only weren't really good at- they had no knowledge of, or little interest in..

In short, I think that they're "over-specialized."

"WTF is that, Fellman?"

Think about this:

In the aquarium hobby, it seems that these days, virtually everyone is a "specialist" of some sort. An expert on a very specific subject, skill, fish, plant, etc. While that's really cool (because we need "experts" to help lead the way in various areas), it's also a bit of a problem at times, because some of these people can't seem to manage the basics. Or, perhaps they're not interested in them? Not sure exactly- but in at least 3 of the cases I mentioned above, "not interested" came into play.

And of course, in a hobby like aquarium keeping, it's more than just a basic requirement to be "interested" in multiple aspects, right?

Yet, how could this be?

I think it starts with the way we view our aquairums.

To some, they are simply a vessel to hold water containing our favorite fishes- and that's it. It's all about breeding the particular species or variety they're into. Nothing else. To others, aquariums are a very special canvass upon which to create achingly beautiful underwater scenes. Yet, it ends there. They just want to look at their creations and that's it. Done. They break 'em down after they've taken a few hundred pics and shot a video.

That's their whole joy in the hobby.

Another "subset" are hobbyists who love the dual aspects of acquiring stuff for their  new tank, and putting together their crazy plumbing, lighting, and electrical systems for the tank. And they're almost "bored" with the "keeping and maintaining fishes and corals" part. Like, they enjoy searching for and purchasing them...just not taking care of them. And their high-tech "aquatics shrines" show this too. They are filled with amazing tech, but they just seem to fall short as enjoyable aesthetic displays.

All of the hobbyists who came to me with this "issue" don't seem to find "the middle ground." And on the surface, they'll tell you that they love their craft- and they do-but that there is "something" missing- something that keeps them from enjoying every aspect of it. 

I think that the problem is that "middle ground." It's difficult to love the hobby if you don't enjoy the whole process. And it has a lot to do with the way we view our aquariums.

There is something magical about thinking about our aquariums as little microcosms.

I know, I've touched on this idea like 10,000 times here, as recently as last week- but it's something that I think needs constant reinforcement. For some reason, the hobby world still seems caught up in this "aesthetics first" mentality, which, quite frankly, leaves us vulnerable to failure and frustration over the long term.

Failure, because working only the aesthetic angle fails to take into account that you're dealing with a living closed ecosystem, and all of it's inputs and outputs- not a piece of "kinetic art."

I know plenty of super talented aquascapers that are among the worst and most incompetent aquarists I've ever seen. Like, they can barely keep a tank going. They could set up a hardcscape for the ages- beautiful, perfectly rationed, etc. However, when it comes to actually managing the thing over the long haul, their completely awful at it. They'll tell you that they're all about "the art" and the "husbandry part" is not their thing.

I suppose that's true. 

Of course, I know plenty of hobbyists who can literally look at a rare fish and it'll spawn for them- and they can raise the fry no sweat. However, their tanks look like a lab experiment at best, or a complete piece of shit at worst. They'll tell you that they're all about breeding the fish and the function of the filtration, or whatever, and it's hard to argue with that, I guess. That's their idea of what's important. Aesthetics are not their focus.

Yet, they tell me that something is missing in their enjoyment of the hobby. Oh, it's the enjoyment part!

Far be it from me to tell others how to enjoy their hobby. However, when I have multiple hobbyists pointing out the same sort of "X factor" that limits their enjoyment of the hobby, I think I'm on to something here. And the scary part is that 4 of them are talking about packing it in and leaving the hobby.


I think there is an easy solution, really. At least, in theory:

I think we all need to broaden out our horizons just a bit. 

I know that I love a lot of different things in the hobby. A few, I think I'm pretty good at. Some, I'm competent with. Others, I'm sub par at...and some I just suck at. Yet, I find a way to enjoy them all, not at the expense of the others. Rather, I keep finding ways to weave together all of these diverse hobby practices to enhance my experience. I make it a point not to get too into one thing at the expense of the others. I've found a sort of balance. 

And I'm not afraid to challenge myself by venturing into some of the areas that I'm less talented with; areas that I find more challenging. I think that you can incorporate the challenging parts into your regular areas of specialization- and perhaps..maybe try to find some joy in them. Understanding that stuff like husbandry or aquascaping, or plumbing your reef tank can be seen as less of a chore, and more of a way to improve the lives of the fishes, or the overall outcome of the system can really help change your outlook. 

If this is you, try to view stuff from that perspective, rather than just the, "Oh, shit, I need to plumb the tank!" mindset. Somehow, mentally "plugging" the task you don't like into the process of achieving the end result helps make it more palatable. Don't let your skills for things that aren't your primary hobby focus "atrophy", or simply fail to develop at all!

Expose yourself more to the things you don't find completely engrossing. You'll find that, more often than not- the skills you've acquired in your speciality will help you enjoy- and excel-at the other areas of the hobby which you work with. Obsessed with fish breeding? Try a planted aquarium Like biotope aquariums? Try breeding your fishes in a simulation of their natural habitat...

"Crossover skills" are huge.

And, embracing some of the simple tasks which we find perhaps off-putting, and learning to enjoy aspects of aquarium keeping which we somehow find challenging,  not fun, or even a bit objectionable, is a key to staying engaged and excited about the hobby, IMHO.

I really think it's that simple.

Again, how you enjoy the hobby is your business- and it's not for me or anyone else to tell you how to do it. In the end, it's a personal thing. However, in a hobby where everyone's contribution is so important, we need as many hobbyists as possible to stay in the game. We need you. 

Don't get so caught up with your speciality that you overlook all of the other amazing things which the aquarium hobby offers.

Stay engaged. Stay adaptable. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 02, 2020

Hi Helene,

Great points! The part about “seeing posts for sick fish and inappropriate setups” is spot on, and identifies a real problem: A whole lot of hobbyists have no desire to make the effort to learn the fundamentals- and as a result, their fishes end up suffering, and the hobby loses a potential contributor. It’s a sad cycle that can easily be reversed if we stress the value of educating oneself in the hobby basics BEFORE leaping in. There is a ton of material out there on line about pretty much any arcane topic imaginable, so there is simply no excuse for impatience and jumping in without making at least a cursory effort to familiarize oneself with the essential information about keeping fishes. The only thing that will change this sad and somehow prevailing new mindset about “impatience” is if we contiue to provide information and direct people to the information, rather than simply give the instant answer…I think. People need to learn to use this valuable resource we have in the internet, and stop making excuses about not having enough time to research. If they don’t have time to learn, they likely don’t have. enough time to properly care for fish…right? They-and the hobby- would be better off not jumping in until they have the time and resources to make a proper effort, IMHO.



August 31, 2020

Hi Scott!
I think it is also important to do things for us and not always to impress others and make money. I try to find balance between the time i can enjoy my tanks vs all the efforts that goes into them. An example of that is that my fully planted tank is now of fully planted tank with plant in pots..LOL. It is simpler for ME and i managed to make it nice and hide most of them. I don’t make a living from those so i don’t know if i could be so simple if i had to impress people.
What wears me down a lot is all the posts i see my favorite groups about sick fish and inappropriate set up. Most of the time it is due to someone making no research before and after and i can’t seem to respond anymore as i could copy/paste my previous coachings. That is quite heavy and sad to a point where i breed only what i can keep. I don’t sell anymore as i don’t want my youngster to end up living a shit life.
Thanks for sharing this article with us. Cheers.

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