The elusive goal of "perfection..."

As the Holiday Season is in full swing, and the new year is on the horizon, it's a very exciting of time for a lot of fish geeks: That time, after the hustle and bustle of the holidays, when many of us create a new tank for ourselves! That magical, exciting, nerve-wracking, utterly enjoyable time.

Soon, it'll be time to get the show on the road and create a beautiful aquatic environment in that blank canvas that is the empty aquarium!

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 all of the previous tanks we've built were part of a buildup to this ultimate achievement.

Perfection this time!

That's a lot of pressure to put on ourselves, huh?  

I hear this so often from my fellow hobbyists and customers that it's sort of becoming "a thing..."

Now, that's not an entirely unhealthy thing; I mean, pushing ourselves is not a bad thing, right? We always strive to improve, to learn from past mistakes, and to constantly work at perfecting our craft. There is nothing wrong with hobby "self improvement."

The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to overreach at times in our attempts to create our version 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 over the years- sometimes with good results, but also with unintended, less-than-favorable effects on my mindset!  And it is a bit weird, because being at the helm of Tannin Aquatics, there were times when I've put some additional artificial pressure on myself, convincing myself that I needed to push myself to the limits of capability, technology, and budget just because it's what's "expected by "everyone"- and that I needed to "inspire" our community.

Now, perhaps that was more true early on in our existence, when I really needed to visually articulate just what we meant by "botanical-style" aquariums. These types of tanks were way, way out of the mainstream in the hobby, and we simply needed more quality examples to inspire others and to just convince a few people to give this "weird" idea a shot! 

So, yeah, there was some pressure I placed on myself to nail everything I did. I mean, we were trying to foster a movement here.

However, as the years passed and Tannin and our philosophy began taking hold, I find that I'm actually a lot more relaxed about the whole thing-spending more time just enjoying the process; thinking about what gives me the most pleasure in aquarium keeping, and how I can design my system to provide that experience for me-and health for my animals.  If something cool comes of it which inspires others, that's "icing on the cake!"

I think I was perhaps a bit hypocritical to push myself so hard to push for some perfect way to inspire people, as opposed to simply doing what I felt was interesting, unique, enjoyable, and educational.

I've realized that sometimes, the best "inspiration" I can provide is not showing you  only what I believe is a sort of "perfection"; rather, simply sharing the journey and process of creating a botanical-style aquarium, and accepting whatever comes of my efforts. Understanding that much of what we do is simply "setting the stage" for Nature to take over- and that the real magic happens when we give her the reigns...

This is a far healthier, happier place for me- and for many of you, who have placed similar pressure on yourselves over the years, right? 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. 

I'm finally able to reflect back on my lifetime of experiences in the hobby and truly put my mind into a mode of, "I can really enjoy this for the right reasons." So, it's a personal breakthrough, if nothing else...

I figured I'd share my little "epiphany" with you. Perhaps it's something that you've pondered before?

Regardless, I'll continue share 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 have from the fish keeping hobby.

I've broken this little personal discovery down into a few points about things I know have had to do to differently to have a successful, enjoyable aquarium.  I think that these ideas might help a few of you, too. These are written to myself, from a third person point of view, so if it comes across a bit preachy, that was unintended...except, perhaps, to myself!🤔

Of course, we might need to think about what "successful"  or "perfection" actually means in this context. To some, just having a tank that keeps fishes alive for a while is a "plus one!" For most, 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, being "Insta famous", achieving social media "influencer" status- the whole "Tank of The Millennium" prize that more than one hobbyist I know has coveted.

The term "successful" is really a personal context, I suppose.

So, without further beating the shit out of this, here are my conclusions about things I've found that I needed to do differently in order to achieve the results I want with my aquariums:

Stop trying to create the "perfect" tank from the start. It will evolve.- Yeah, it does happen. You don't need a "finished product" worthy of peer accolades and compliments right from the start (or ever, but that's a different point). Great tanks evolve over time. Wood doesn't even get a little "patina" for months, botanicals don't "soften" for a while, and 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.

The race to "finished" is one you need not push too hard, particularly in the botanical-style natural aquarium genre. You'll get there one way or another, and the timetable is dictated by...well, ya know- Nature.

The "right stuff" is a mindset- not a collection of materials or a "style"- For many aquarists, we get into this "collector's mode", obsessively acquiring that sexy type of wood - sometimes because we love the stuff, and other times, because it's the "hot thing" at the time. Oh, to that end-here's a bit of "inside data" for know what our top-selling wood varieties are? Plain old "Asian driftwood" and so-called "Spider Wood"- hardly exotic...but they work in so many situations! Go figure.

Oh, and what's our top-selling rock? One of the trendy, ridiculously-named varieties?


River Stones. Can barely keep the stuff in stock half the time.

What does this say to us? Stuff which works is always the "hot style"- particularly when you're trying to replicate Nature instead of some other person's aquascape...


Now, in all fairness-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 the trendier stuff- the "thrill of the hunt." Oh, and replicating another hobbyist's awesome work? .Nothing wrong with that at all, but don't discount your own ability to interpret Nature, too.

You're likely better at it than you think.

For all of us, it should be about letting Nature run its course, as it has for eons, and helping it along a bit in our closed systems. Nature has no "schedule", no "style guide" to follow. Just because the latest thing is to "break the water line" with hardscape, or whatever, it doesn't mean you're "out of touch" if your hardscape doesn't!

I frequently laugh when I hear the well-known 'scapers talk about trying to master a certain aquascaping "style" or mastering working with a type of rock or something. I love and admire these people dearly, but I don't think that they realize that just saying shit like that messes with people's minds, lol (no doubt it sells some expensive rocks and stuff, too, of course)...

See challenges in your aquarium, like algae issues, parameter control, etc as opportunities to improve your skills- It may seem utterly ridiculous when there is green slime on your sand, brown filamentous algae clogging your overflow, and diatoms all over the aquarium walls, but if you actually take the mindset of, "Here is a chance to figure out what I'm doing wrong and how to keep it from happening again," you may just come out 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 challenges. Everyone freaks out from time to time- it's human nature. However, the TRULY successful hobbyists is the one who gathers his/her wits, observes what's going on, analyzes what the cause might be, and tries to figure out what to do about it so that it doesn't happen again.

Don't just go "through the experience" with a problem- 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 know, that's almost laughable, coming from a guy who has become an 'evangelist" for the replicating natural water conditions in the aquarium when possible. Well, yeah, 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.

We receive a lot of emails from hobbyists trying to hit some specific pH, GH, and or TDS level in their tanks, and they are going crazy trying to hit their targets. That's a bit crazy, I admit. In fact, it's nuts. Let's be honest- I think that having 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.

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 nuts- if not- drive you out of the hobby- in record time. 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, white spot on your Gourami, and bit of brown 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 aquarists that think the world is coming to an end every time their filter's output goes out of whack- convinced that this is a sign of some "great tank apocalypse." Typically, it's just a sign that they just fed some extra food or got to excited with an additive or something. Not worth worrying about, unless you see signs of overt distress, right?

Yeah, 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. 

Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks- This is the toughest 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" tanks, build threads, DIY projects, animal acquisition success stories, and assertions that "THIS" is the way to succeed at keeping a successful aquarium.

And, with the aquarium forum "community" elevating various actively-posting hobbyists to near divine status daily, we can easily feel not only humbled, but downright insignificant or irrelevant as aquarists. This is a really bad thing to get sucked into. Remember, typically what you see on "the 'gram" or elsewhere is someone's work at its best- the most polished, favorable pics garner far more "likes", engagement, and buzz on social media...

Do YOU: 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. I see this daily. It's toxic. And the fact that we often succumb to this pressure is simply crazy.

Yeah, there are always plenty of people heaping adoration on the hobbyists that 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 keeping hobby to impress anyone- let alone, the masses. You're probably in this hobby simply because you love keeping fishes, plants, corals, and aquariums-whatever you're into. These are the right reasons.

Just because you may have a contrarian bent- an idea that seems to go against "conventional aquarium-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 gut and execute! 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 very adoration that you previously scorned.

Weird, huh?

Yeah, it happens...

Grit, passion, and determination can take you farther than style, money, and gadgets-  It's true. Anyone can throw together an uber-pricy tank with all the latest gadgets, name-drop-able fishes, rocks, and wood. Anyone can hire "experts" to make it for them. Anyone can talk a good game, get "likes" on Facebook, and play the "hype game." Not everyone can create and maintain a truly great aquarium over the long run; one that takes time, patience, and yeah- the occasional dose of failure.

Not everyone can rise from setbacks, mistakes, and outright catastrophes- and create an amazing reef tank, 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.

And don't think for even one minute that your little tank with a pair of Apistos and a well-tended Anubias is any less amazing or interesting than the 500 gallon "Nature Aquarium" style tank that some well-heeled hobbyist somewhere is building and splashing all over Instagram. 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. 

As we enjoy the holidays and get ready to start a new year, 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.

"Perfection" as we often describe it is likely unobtainable, and the amount of energy we spend to try to achieve it is often better spent simply doing great work and enjoying the whole process.

Always remember the amazing responsibility we shoulder as aquarists to provide the best possible life for the animals under our care, and for their well-being. Realize that when we are accomplishing those key things, we've already won the game. And yeah, always take more than an occasional glance at the wild habitats from which our fishes come, for the ultimate inspiration!

You might already be approaching that elusive goal of "perfection..."

And then, remember how damn fun this whole game really is- when you let yourself enjoy it!

Stay happy. Stay calm. Stay engaged. Stay creative. Stay individual. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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