Written by: Hans Appel
Racing home from the pet store with supplies in hand, I was thrilled to introduce my scaly new friend to his home. My parents went all out! They purchased a 25 gallon aquarium with a full water filtration system. We carefully placed a bed of sea blue pebbles at the floor of my tank complete with a sunken treasure chest for him to swim through. It was a goldfish paradise and I was eager to plop my buddy into a whole new world.
2 weeks later he died.
Apparently, there’s a limit to how much you can feed your goldfish. After learning my lesson in overindulgence, I eagerly tried my second round of aquatics. While this round of sacrificial lamb lasted longer than the previous, after several months the results were eerily the same. Over a two year span we tried several fish breeds, sizes, colors while adding vegetation and other toys to the mix. Many of the goldfish even jumped out of the tank to their own demise.
After multiple parentally imposed goldfish moratoriums, we switched tanks. Clearly, a new tank would make all the difference in rebranding my animal slaughterhouse into a radiant blue sea. It did not! After several years, the attic became a permanent burial ground to my glass enclosed water torture chambers.
For years I’d occasionally catch sight of a gorgeous aquarium at a dentist office, pet store, or zoo and wondered what might be the secret to goldfish longevity. While I accepted my fair share of blame, I ultimately concluded that goldfish weren’t smart and could not be domesticated as they just didn’t live that long. I assumed goldfish were the Cousin Eddie of the pet family.
A friend of mine won a goldfish in a carnival ring toss game. I distinctly remember me and a few other high school buddies teasing him that his fish wouldn’t survive the day. His family put it in a large glass bowl with no frills or fancy aquaponics system. Any guess how long the little guy thrived before being flushed down the toilet?
Over 10 years---
[In fairness this was the same friend who’s family paid for surgery for their guinea pig, Snoopy and prepared homemade meatloaf for their dog Pepper. THEY LOVED THEIR FAMILY PETS!]
You might think they lucked into a genetically modified superfish who lived the longest joyful life in existence. Not true. [The average goldfish has a 10 year life expectancy in an adequate domesticated ecosystem. In fact, some goldfish occasionally live 30+ years and the oldest ever goldfish lived to be 45 years old.]
Apparently, I made a few big mistakes in my underlying assumption and judgement of the goldfish years ago. Nowadays, I realize the following:
I spent my youth underestimating goldfish, in the way that many of us underestimate ourselves and others. Lately, I’ve been rethinking that famous quote:
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid.
What’s a goldfish’s genius? The lazy answer might be based on physical characteristics. Gills to breathe underwater. Fins to effortlessly swim. But sometimes uncovering other’s superpowers takes a bit more effort and experimentation...
For years scientists believed that goldfish had no memory as they thought fish were incapable of remembering anything longer than 3 seconds. New research suggests that fish can remember up to 5 months. One study taught goldfish to push a lever for food and then took it away to measure how long they’d remember to use the lever. Despite not having seen the lever up to 5 months later, they could still self access the food. It’s critical not to judge other’s intelligence by outward appearance.
A study in Canada, by Microsoft found that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. While the average goldfish can focus on something for 9 seconds, human attention spans have dropped significantly since 2000. Prior to 2000, human attention spans were estimated to be 12 seconds. However, recently our attention span has plummeted to a mere 8 seconds. (I’ll bet you can guess what was introduced into our human ecosystem over the last 20 years: smart devices, email, and social media). Fish may not be capable of climbing trees but their memory and attention span are surprisingly strong.
Our limiting belief that the goldfish’s genus is simply swimming or underwater breathing might be just as erroneous as assuming basketball icon, Michael Jordan’s superpower was jumping high or running fast. Jordan’s true genius was his character traits not athletic skills. Lots of incredible athletes would come before or after him but he applied a level of grit to develop his passion in ways that others had not. His mindset, competitive spirit, and tenacity to out work everyone each day were on full display. His effort in practice was legendary among the best athletes in the world. Despite being universally heralded as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) he showed up to each practice like an undrafted rookie trying to make the team.
Identifying superpowers requires us to lean into humanistic curiosity.
Appreciation > Environment:
We assume our organizational environment needs to look like Nike, Microsoft, or Google complete with a climbing wall, in-house chef, and on-site dog sitting service. I’ve had the pleasure of taking personal tours at several of these cultural workspaces and they’re truly breathtaking. However, their culture runs deeper than their bright colored flexible seating pods. We mistakenly believe the custom omelette bar brings them joy--but in reality joy comes from feeling valued by your employer, co-worker, or team.
We want our classrooms, offices, and homes to be beautifully designed spaces for creativity, learning, and communication. Don’t get me wrong, would the goldfish prefer the beautiful ocean like filtration system, plants, and sea life to navigate?
But, I’ve also realized that cleaning the bowl regularly, feeding them the right amount on a specific interval schedule, and refusing to scare them by tapping on the glass are more critical to their long term well-being. We can’t leave pumping oxygen into our cultural think tanks up to some automated device. Feeling valued is the oxygen in our environmental culture. This form of positive human connection becomes critical to our survival. As leaders we have the power and obligation to intentionally support people everyday.
The people we lead, need us to:
Why do goldfish jump out of their bowls and tanks? Dirty ecosystems, temperatures which are too hot or too cold, and other unbearable living conditions prompt fish to seek out a better place to live. Their ability to recognize poor culture and actively strive for a better environment should be inspiring to all of us. Think about all the adults who stay put in horrifying work conditions, oppressive spheres, and other forms of toxic culture. Having the courage to jump out of the fish bowl might be a sign of strength as we gain perspective on our surroundings.
In my other life as a family therapist, we occasionally used a clinical strategy called the Fishbowl. In a fishbowl, we’d invite a family to join a team of mental health professionals in a circular space for some intentional communication enlightenment. These multi-hour fishbowls allowed family members to jump outside the circle to watch interactions and family dynamics play out in real time. There was incredible insight and break through for clients to step back and be an observer rather than a participant of their own family drama.
But jumping out of the fishbowl is something we can all do in our everyday lives. Here’s a few examples:
Belief can become a limiting action...
Our biases, assumptions, and predetermined expectations incarcerate ourselves and others with glass walls that leave us desperate to break out.
Culture is an ever shifting expression of our most recent actions. It’s like water sloshing around in an old fish tank. And to create the perfect educational ecosystem, for our school of fish, we must practice daily actions of intentionality.
Inspiring others to jump out of the fishbowl for a change in environment can have the profound effect of discovering and developing a cultural superpower.
About the Author
Hans Appel is an educator, speaker, and writer deeply committed to inspiring the whole child. He’s the author of, Award Winning Culture: Building School-Wide Intentionality and Action Through Character, Excellence, and Community. Additionally, he’s the Co-host of the Award Winning Culture podcast, and the Co-Creator of Award Winning Culture.
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.