I have come to one inescapable conclusion:
Everything I needed to know about life, I learned from my aquariums.
Ok, that sounds kind of insane, actually. And maybe it wasn't everything, but still...
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, health, and relationships are more important than your aquariums. 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. Plant trimming? Things will ebb and flow and you can tackle every single one of your aquarium-keeping dreams and ambitions.
You just don’t need to do them all at the same time!
Or if you do...you need to allot enough time.
Lesson Two- Practice Patience- I know that in my personal life, I’d hardly be given the moniker of “patient”, but in my aquarium-keeping work, it’s my mantra! 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 microcosm, and it follows eons-old natural patterns of function and process.
You can’t rush stuff. Oh, sure, you can “seed” your aquarium with biological material to speed up the cycling process, and you can grow your fishes ore plants a bit faster with frequent water changes, feeding, and trace element replenishment...But it can only go so fast.
Besides, why would you want to rush it?
Why not follow those good practices, but expect- and enjoy- a slower, more measured pace of growth in your tank? Botanical-style blackwater aquariums 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. Eventually, you’ll get there. And you’ll probably find the journey every bit as enjoyable as the destination.
Lesson Three- Be an Authentic Aquarist - Huh? What I’m getting at here is that you should love being who you are as a aquarist! Be comfortable in your own skin. Sounds like “psychobabble”, but it’s true! In this social media-field era, it's more important than ever to do YOU. Your greatest aquarium-keeping successes will come when you practice being the type of hobbyist you are. Just because everyone is infatuated with Bettas and you love characins does not mean that you’re not a “cool” aquarist. 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 hobbyists.
And the authenticity part has further meaning...If you have no interest- or worse yet- no clue- about the long-term effects of botanicals in an aquarium for example- then don’t get on the forums and start preaching the danger of biofilms and decomposition to fellow hobbyists based on what "someone said once", or whatever. 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 aquarium world. It doesn't offer the value of knowledge gained from personal experience, and the nuance that goes with it.
In our sector it's how myths like "leaves can soften water" got started. Be proud of your aquarium, your experience, and the type of aquarist that you are. Maybe you don't know the answer for are from personal experience. Nothing wrong with that. However, don't give "advice" that you can't back up with first hand experience, unless you're specifically noting that you're passing along second or third hand information.
Sure, some stuff, like, "Don't add household bleach to your tank" is an experience you've likely never had personally, but it makes sense to share. Yet, in general, when giving advice, make it about your personal experience It's more helpful that way.Share selflessly, but 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 fish geeks 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. Reach out on the forums and at local clubs and to your LFS and consult other hobbyists. 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 cheerleaders when you need them. It’s a smarter, more effective way to succeed in the hobby.
Join the local aquarium club, or start one if there isn’t one in your area. Hang out at your local fish store and support it in every way-now, more than ever. 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 you with great pleasure. Of course, you can join one of the many friendly aquarium communities online, 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, plant, or coral known to the hobby! I see this in the reef end of the hobby a lot! This is a real problem, too, as it can lead to an overcrowded, biologically mismatched aquarium population at best (do a Google search on “allelopathy”), and total disaster at the worst! The solution is to excercise restraint. Just say “NO” sometimes!
Of course, 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 - Shit, just get out of your comfort zone once in a while! I’m not saying to try to set up a 400 gallon non-photosynthetic coral aquarium just to prove that you’re a badass...What I am saying is that you should try something different from the tried-and true sometime. Keep that slightly-less-than-super-hardy wild Betta species 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. Try the strange, leaf-litter -only tank. Use that different type of wood that you've been rolling over in your next scape. Maybe might be the first person to breed that weird little Hatchet Fish that you have a secret fetish about. You may be the one person that figured out how to keep that uber-delicate deepwater Acropora 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'm suggesting is that you should play the occasional hunch and push yourself a bit. If it weren’t for the brave folks like many of my former colleagues in the coral-propagation world, we would probably just now be realizing a viable market for commercially-propagated coral.
If someone like Jack Wattley didn’t take a chance trying to breed dozens of varieties of Discus, we might be stuck with wild-imported specimens as our only option (not that there is anything wrong with the wild types, mind you!). 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 aquascape 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? Maybe your taste is a little different...
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 red bugs on your corals, or that you purchase and boil leaves from a company called Tannin Aquatics
You likely keep stinky frozen worms and stuff 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 some of nature’s most amazing creatures alive outside of their natural habitat. Not only alive- but thriving!
And you do it in a way that more closely resembles Nature as it IS than almost any other hobby group.
And that means something to many of us, doesn't it?
When you screw up- and you will - accept the consequences with grace and humor. Laugh about it. Share the mistakes and foibles with fellow fish geeks. You’re probably not the only one who nuked his or her aquarium with unwashed silica sand, unleashed a "small" pike cichlid into your peaceful tank fo " tough" characins, or placed a Galaxea two inches from your prized Sunset Montipora. 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, nonetheless!
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 - a reef 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 aquairums. Ok, almost everything. I never really figured out how to get my dog to listen to me. And how to do those little Chinese finger puzzles, or how to flip pizza dough, or...
Yeah, a lot to learn.
Enjoy the process.
Stay unique. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.