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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mailman


I’ve made some pretty big "mistakes" in my life. I think we all have. What I’ve come to realize is, how I respond to the realization that I blew it, is the key to accepting it for the gift it actually is. "Mistakes", especially around something that presents itself as a do-or-die situation, can sometimes feel like the end of the world. How many times have we let ourselves get caught up in the drama of it all instead of just taking a good honest look at what we’ve done, reveling in the lesson we learned, and moved on to even bigger and better fuck-ups. One thing I know for sure, there are a million and one reasons why we make "mistakes", but only one for why we should learn to accept them as the gifts they were actually intended to be.

I’ve worked in the entertainment business, specifically reality television, for many years. Working on these types of shows demands that you have the ability to constantly pivot when the plan goes awry. When you’re responsible for keeping that train on the track, one wrong turn can derail the entire operation. And it’s not only you that decision affects, it’s the entire production. Time and time again I’ve seen one of two scenarios play out. Either someone will make the same mistake over and over again just to protect their own belief about something, or they’ll completely avoid making any decision at all. The first is something called “The Ego Effect”, where nothing’s accomplished and nothing is learned. And the second is a form of self-protection. Someone refuses to make a decision in order to avoid taking a risk, opening themselves up to critique, or horror of all horrors, making a "mistake". What happens in both situations is that leadership and the concept of serving others becomes null and void.

When airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger miraculously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009 after a flock of birds disabled the plane’s engines, he said the following: “Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died. We have purchased at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood that we have to preserve as institutional knowledge and pass on to succeeding generations. We cannot have the moral failure of forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.” That statement not only struck me as being deeply insightful when I first read it but became a guiding principle for me when what could be perceived the biggest mistake I ever made nearly ended my life. In January of 2022, after months of being extremely sick, and unable to get answers from my doctors as to what was going on, I got the devastating news that I had full blown AIDS. And it wasn’t just one mistake that led me to the brink of death, it was a series of failures on my part and on the part of my physicians that almost ended my life.

Still in the midst of the pandemic, speaking to a doctor let alone getting to see one face to face was nearly impossible. I had become accustomed to reading test results online, Googling the numbers, and eliminating all types of fatal diseases on my own. On New Year’s Day, having been in bed for weeks barely able to hold my head up, I was once again combing through blood test results looking for answers when I suddenly realized there was no HIV test in any of my bloodwork. How could that be? I frantically scrolled up and down my computer screen scrutinizing every line. Nothing. My heart sank. The following day I dragged myself into the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center where they took one look at me and immediately ran a rapid HIV test. Twenty minutes later, they gave me the news. I was positive. A full blood panel was run and a few days later I got the news that, in-fact, I had full blown AIDS. How could this happen? When did this happen? And how could I have made such a horrible mistake?

In they days and weeks following my diagnosis I obsessed about pinpointing when it all went wrong. Not only had I live through the worst part of the epidemic in the mid 80's and 90's, but I made education and awareness an integral part of much of my artistic life. How could I have let this happen? And how would I be able to move beyond it? It took about month of anxiety filled days and nights before the light bulb finally went off in my brain and the shift in perception about it all occurred. It was when I started to think about my work life. How for years I watched peoples inaction for fear of failure, or repetition of mistakes destroy the joy of the creative process. I spent my entire career trying to set an example to others that indeed you can spin shit into gold. Pardon me, turn lemons into lemonade. I thought about what Captain Sullenberger said about the moral failure of forgetting the lessons learned at the expense of others. What happened to me wasn’t simple. There was an entire lifetime that led me to that moment. But I had a choice. I could go through the rest of my life in pain and confusion about it all, or I could think about where I’d been, look at where I was, and decide where I wanted to go. There are a million and one reasons why we make “mistakes”, but only one for why we should learn to accept them as the gifts they were intended to be. Because that's exactly what they are.

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