Periodically, I find it useful to evaluate my hobby experience...where I've been, where I want to go. It's especially important as someone who has elected to dedicate a good portion of his life to the business of sharing the hobby and lifestyle with fellow enthusiasts worldwide. It's a very satisfying life, as many who work in this field will tell you- but there are usually moments when you stray a bit...get lost, perhaps- and drift in the current (metaphorically, at least!) for a while.
I know, this isn't a blog post on "How to select an aquarium heater" or "The top 3 cichlids for your community tank" -you can read that stuff on any old hobby blog. Nope- today's piece is a bit personal...it's something that, although not discussed in hobby writings, I think many of you can relate to. It's about business, passion...life. It's about us.
People often ask me how I have such a total enthusiasm for what I do.
How I can be "on" all the time?
And it made me reflect.
And as always, there are experiences and conversations to recall...
I wasn't always like this.
A few weeks back, I was talking with a friend- a fellow aquarium industry person- who was lamenting about how "burned out" he was; how "disconnected" he felt from the hobby...He was very "numb" to the whole wonder of being a fish geek. He had been sort of "going through the motions", and that was about it. Like, he lost the spark, or whatever that made it all work for him.
It was affecting both him and his business.
It was actually obvious. I felt bad for him. And I think part of the reason was because I had been there before, myself!
We had a little discussion about his "burnout", and it made me pause and reflect on my own experience with this same phenomenon not too many years back...
A little background:
Without boring you with every detail of my background, I'll summarize by telling you (as if most of you may not know by now) that I was/am(?) actually rather well-known in the reef aquarium world before I started Tannin Aquatics...Oh, that sounded a bit arrogant, huh?
Wasn't the intention, trust me, but it will give you some context...
My point is, I'm not all that well-known as a "freshwater" writer or "personality", if you will. However, in the marine aquarium world, My name is pretty well known, and I've been pretty hard to miss over the past decade or so. I was everywhere. Spoken at tons of conferences, authored a lot of stuff, etc. I have traveled around the nation and the world on a monthly basis, speaking to clubs and conferences. I was a co-owner of Unique Corals, which became one of the reef world's most respected retail reef livestock vendors/coral propagators/importers.
I'm a lifetime fish geek. It is what I was born to be. I had my first legit aquarium at age 4- no joke. And it's just mushroomed from there. It wasn't just because I wanted to be into the hobby- I was destined for it, lol.
However, there was brief period of time a few years ago when I was very peripherally involved in the aquarium hobby on a personal level...That is, actually keeping tanks of my own to any serious extent! It had been only a few years, and that was too many. Oh sure, I "kept" tanks and stuff- our facility at UC was like 18,000 gallons of saltwater! I was around fish and corals and water like 12 hours every day.
But that doesn't really count, does it?
I mean, it might...but it's different when it's your own hobby tanks, right?
During that time, as I slowly formulated the idea for Tannin, and played with more and more ideas for blackwater aquariums, I tested every product we offer at Tannin in my own freshwater tanks...Came up with ideas...sourced products. Took a "deep dive" into the world of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums..But the sad reality is that I felt oddly "disconnected" from the actual hobby.
Everything was "business."
It seemed as though my hobby was more about shaking hands, giving talks, and accumulating frequent flyer miles, hotel stays, and seat upgrades on speaking trips than it was about accumulating relatable hobby experiences.
I was a "clinical" aquarist.
Fortunately, a couple of good friends noticed this, and literally coerced me into getting back into the game on a personal level...and when I took their cues, everything changed. In the past few years, I've never been happier, "aquatically!" All it took was just setting up some tanks for ME. Not as business "proof of concept" experiments. Not for the purpose of sharing them on social media to move products...Just for fun.
Who would have thought it would take the "intervention" of friends to make me enjoy the hobby again?
But it did.
And I won't question it, either!
It's applicable, of course, to ANY aquatic field of endeavor within the hobby. Or any passion of yours which has become a business. This is a story of a personal journey... almost "confessional" in a way, and was a very therapeutic piece to write!
I digress again...
I made a (for me) the wonderful and long-overdue transition back from “clinical” aquarist to “practicing” aquarist once again, and it’s felt incredible. It ushered in an amazing period in my aquarium "career."
Let me explain...
As I mentioned above, I found myself slipping into the role of what I call “clinical” aquarist.
What do I mean by “clinical?”
Well, there are a lot of people in my position, like, way more than you'd imagine- owning and building hobby-related businesses, perhaps writing, speaking, and “living the fish geek life” like I do, who don’t even have a tank that they maintain everyday strictly for pleasure; who perhaps ply their stock in trade in the aquarium world for years without maintaining an active personal aquarium. Yes, they’re in touch with the hobby, and the animals, and the gear…but they’re not in “the final few inches” of what is really happening.
I’m not saying that this is bad. I'm not saying that having a personal tank is a mandatory prerequisite for success or anything. I’m just identifying what was a problem for me- and for a few other people I know.
Where it can get bad is when you find yourself regurgitating stuff from a long time ago- perhaps stuff that is perhaps even woefully outdated or anecdotal- when rendering advice to others; or perhaps you are staying current on the latest and greatest and "preaching" it without actually practicing it…THAT is an ultimate sin in the aquarium world, IMHO. There’s lots of that percolating around the hobby, more than you'd think-and it's obvious especially when you find yourself “in the know”, speaking and traveling around hobby-related conferences and events.
Darker still, there is an even smaller fraction of people (thankfully), who spend much time criticizing others in the hobby and industry, slinging negative publicity for practices/products/people they don’t “approve” of, and generally rallying their buddies to give them a social media “pat on the back” while they spew forth their vitriol with unabashed nastiness…all while not even being a “practicing” aquarist.
Yeah, there are a bunch of people who are just like that, and it’s sad.
It’s sad, because they don’t experience the real pleasure of actually keeping an aquarium. It’s sad because they are so myopic in their focus that they can’t get past themselves, their self-appointed grandeur, and the adulation of their small “rooting section” who heap on the “attaboys” whenever they pop up on social media discussions, etc.
They don’t get it. At all.
It’s also sad, because some of these people are immensely intelligent, focused, and dare we say, experts about certain things, yet they can’t get beyond their negativity and disdain for others who they feel have “violated” the sanctity of “their” fields of expertise. Rather than sharing something useful, they choose to simply...criticize.
I ran into some of these people for a bit when I started Tannin. It was surprisingly strong- the vitriol from the hobby's dark corners...
Rather than disseminating their immense knowledge in a useful and helpful way for hobbyists, these people find it far easier to thrive in a sea of negativity, attempt to diminish others, and thrive off of the virtual pats on the back from their small, yet vocal groups of friends, none of who have the courage to stand up on their own and let their individual voices be heard, lest they suffer the “wrath” of their demigods.
Totally sad. And not a place you want to be. That's a different variation on this theme of "clinical", but it's shockingly not that uncommon in the aquarium world. You might have encountered these types before.
Oh, back to my story (lol)...
So I realized that I was drifting into that larger, yet equally distasteful (to me) category of “clinical” aquarist, who, although I co-operated an epic coral facility/online business and was "semi hands-on” with the animals, equipment, and practices on a daily basis, found myself without a home aquarium of any significance, and felt oddly “detached” from the “real world” of the hobby.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a hermit. I talked to hobbyists everyday, went to conferences, immersed myself in it all; yet, rather than relating to them in a manner based on “Yeah, I’m going though that algae bloom, too!”, I was falling back on my experiences of the past (“Yeah, I had an algae bloom like that back in 2010..er, 2009- maybe 2007? Anyways, it sucked…”).
It felt, well...yucky. (perfect word for it.)
And I realized the scary fact that I was becoming one of "those" people...and I didn't like it. At all.
Even though, on the surface, I was right there. Surrounded by fish, fish geeks...aquariums.
I'd spoken or presented at all of the major reef aquarium conferences...9 MACNAs, several Reefapaloozas, Reefstock, IMAC, and dozens and dozens of clubs and smaller conferences around the world. I’d guest blogged on all of the major reef aquarium sites- Reef Builders, Reef2Reef, etc., been published in hobby online and print magazines- all that stuff. My daily “rants” and blogs were "syndicated" and read by thousands of hobbyists around the world…I’ve been told over the years that I’m the “morning coffee”- the “cold pizza”- for a lot of fish geeks to start their days.
It was quite satisfying to a great extent. It was pretty cool (still is) to have the honor of your attention...It's an amazing connection to experience.
Yet something- I was never able to quite get a finger on what it was at the time- was missing.
That was sad. And oddly unsatisfying….I mean, all of this cool stuff, friendships, etc. and the very reason for it all was not in my life:
Being an active hobbyist on a practicing, personal level.
We built this amazing company at Unique, which dealt intimately with the art and science of the reef keeping hobby, and yet, I feel like somewhere along the way, I actually forgot how cool it is to be a real hobbyist. I don’t know if it was the personal trauma I experienced when my father passed away, or the life changes I went through, or just spending 24/7/365 hyper-focused at building up Unique Corals, and then creating Tannin Aquatics…
Don’t know. But it doesn’t matter now.
What mattered then is that I knew that I wanted to be myself again. A hobbyist of the geekiest type. With wet hands, towels everywhere...stuff like that. Preaching the practice and lifestyle of a fish geek makes that sort of stuff mandatory.
And that’s why I decided, as one of my friends eloquently put it, to “come home” and become a “practicing aquarist” yet again…and I’ve never enjoyed it more.
It never meant more to me to come home to the sounds of an aquarium.
To worry about how my tanks will do when I go out of town. To deal with the weekly water changes, frozen food in the fridge....spilling on the new hardwood floors...Since my "re-awakening" a few years ago, I’ve started multiple new aquarium systems, and have enjoyed the process in a way I never did previously..It brought back the familiar, yet seemingly "atrophied" feelings of excitement, anticipation, engagement, frustration, responsibility, and true camaraderie that you encounter when playing with fish tanks and sharing experiences with your friends.
As someone who likes to write, every day provided new topics and ideas about things to share, question, laugh at myself, discuss…So I kept at it. After a very short time, I felt like part of the community again.
And we've evolved an amazing community around Tannin, and (more important) around the larger blackwater, botanical-style aquarium concept.
That’s really good.
And I feel a bit more, I don’t know- mature, perhaps?
Like someone who’s "lived" a bit, and can take those experiences and apply them to his everyday aquarium practices.
It’s super empowering. It’s not like I was “away”- but it sort of felt like I was “on the outside”, watching others enjoy this amazing thing that I could only sort of longingly stare at through the dirty window. It’s definitely made me a better industry person, too! Relating even better to my customers- my fellow fish geeks- and the people whose I address at conferences and club meetings.
You people- who really matter the most.
I remember many days at Unique, when hobbyists would call or visit, giddy with excitement about receiving that cool Acropora frag or exotic new reef fish, and we’d talk about it…And they’d ask questions, and I’d answer them and discuss their issues, feeling just a little twinge of…I dunno- jealousy, perhaps- that they were enjoying this amazing little thing that I just sort of took for granted.
And it just kind of built from there..the need to "get back over the fence. "
I actually feel like apologizing a bit for not feeling it for too long.
Working daily with some incredible guys at Unique Corals, who practice geeked-out reef keeping at its highest level- just kept the fire burning. It may have been just sort of "smoking embers"- but it was there. Just waiting for a metaphorical spark.
One of my friends, Jake Adams from Reef Builders, must have just known- sensed it…He would always pull me away from my desk to check out some coral, light, crazy project he was working on…or just to cut frags, help move some corals- whatever- just to get me away from the damn computer and get my hands wet.
Another friend would urge me to “go fishing” at the wholesalers here in Los Angeles with him..to just geek out on the cool fishes and corals. Little "interventions", to pull me away from the spreadsheets and order forms and such, if you will.
And it worked. It was like waking up out of a coma…
I learned that you CAN come home again- I learned that sometimes, you have this wonderful thing right in front of your eyes- and you just need to appreciate and enjoy it for what it is…this hobby, this culture- this WORLD that we have is amazing, precious…and beautiful. I would walk my coral grow-out raceways gawking at the corals, thinking exactly what other hobbyists who visited our facility thought: “Man, I’d love to see that Acro in MY tank!”
That was a few years back...and I haven't ever went back to that lonely place again.
During that time of course, my ideas for Tannin started to emerge...The idea blossomed into reality, because I got my hands "wet" again! I became ME again.
Now, when I'm putting together one of your orders, or perhaps helping a new "Tinter" decide on which botanicals to choose for her wild Gourami tank, I feel the sense of excitement, of envy, and camaraderie- but I gaze across the office to one of my tanks...and it's like, "Yeah, I'm right there with you!"
And I think it's enabled us to build an amazing business here at Tannin Aquatics. A business built on the emotions and passions that you can only relate to if you're a genuine, 110%-enaged, fully-committed, practicing aquarium hobbyist!
When you see some of the stuff that's coming from us next...I think you'll understand this even more.
Why am I sharing this personal journey with you?
Well, perhaps it’s a bit "therapeutic" for me…Perhaps it’s a good lesson for those of you who might have "pulled away" from the hobby a bit and feel like you're missing something. Perhaps it’s simply a public affirmation for me about the fact that it's not impossible to come back- and a proclamation about never wanting to stray from the path again.
I offer this to you as less of an explanation of MY hobby journey, and as more of a “life raft” to those of you that, for whatever reason, feel like you’ve strayed away from the hobby that you love so much.
You can do this.
If you know a hobbyist who's drifting away, losing that passion...intervene. It works. This hobby is really hard to get out of your system- trust me! The hobby needs talented, engaged people.
Oh, and my friend?
He just set up a 125-gallon Amazonian biotope tank. It's killer. Oh, and a full on "SPS" reef tank, too.
If you’re out there, drifting in the current. Don't give up on the hobby. Just know that it’s never too late to climb back aboard.
And never more satisfying than now.
Stay involved. Stay enthused. Stay committed. Stay in contact. Stay excited.
And Stay Wet.