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Guided By My Trusted Negative Global Positioning System

Failure as a ticket to success

by Laura Zigman  |  3782 views  |  3 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Some people use their successes to define them -- looking at what they're good at in order to guide them through things like choosing careers or places to live -- but I am just the opposite. I've always used my failures to define me -- looking at what I'm bad at in order to steer me away from things I can't do in the hopes that I'll find something I can do. I call my particular version of a personal navigational system my "NGPS" -- which stands for Negative Global Positioning System -- and so far, it has been incredibly reliable.

Before I started writing books, I worked in book publishing -- at Random House in New York. I thought this would be a great thing, and my parents thought this would be a great thing (note: this was one of the few things we've ever agreed on) since they had been convinced most of my life of my complete unemployability. I had graduated from college in the early 80s when computers were really starting to take off, and the fact that I sucked in math and was good in English seemed to my mother to be the ultimate irony.

Being "good in English" always seemed like a way of not saying that I wasn't really good at anything else -- a euphemism, essentially, for failure -- and quite frankly, i really wasn't good at anything else. I wasn't, as I mentioned before, good at math, which meant I wasn't that good at science, which ruled out a whole host of career possibilities, like medicine and psychology, fields of study I had been interested in at various points. I also wasn't good at standardized tests (an understatement: I sucked at standardized tests like the PSATs, or the SATs) which pretty much ruled out everything else, like law school, even though I never really wanted to go to law school.

"That's Zigman luck for you," my mother used to say, thinking of how several of her friends' brainiac children were at MIT, or Harvard Medical School, or Harvard Business School. I have no idea if her friends' brainiac children were any good in English, but they were most certainly good in math, which was the opposite of a euphemism for failure -- being "good in math" was just another way of saying destined for success.

For my parents, though, "success" was never about money, or a competitive sense of achievement with their friends. As children of the Depression, "success" was merely the question of employability vs. unemployability. All they wanted -- and therefore all I wanted -- was for me to get a job.

"A paying job."

About the Author

Laura is the author of 4 novels (Animal Husbandry, Dating Big Bird, Her, and Piece of Work) but constantly feels like a failure. (

Read more by Laura Zigman

3 comments so far...

  • When everybody ZIGs, some ZAG. I love that!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Lorena on 14th May 2008

  • One last thought ... interestingly, I return to my first strength (English) when my medical work environment gets to chaotic. "Literary Therapy" is what I call it when I journal about the circus I call work. Ha ha.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by KC on 15th December 2007

  • I believe that my strength is English, too. However, I was somewhat decent in the sciences and pursued a childhood dream of entering medicine. It seemed like a perfect fit as there is both an art and a science to medicine. I will admit, though, that I have struggled where some of my brilliant colleagues have sailed. (The theme of my med school year book page was "fall down seven times, stand up eight.") Despite the struggle, I managed to graduate from medical school, residency and am now in advanced training of a fellowship. My patients are happy with the care I give them, and I enjoy a mutually-esteemed working relationship with the office staff. Buut -- honestly -- sometimes I tire of this struggle. Sometimes I want to enter a room and be the expert; be so brilliant and be recognized as brilliant. I am not sure that will happen because my career is based on cultivation of the weaker of my two passions. In cultivating this weaker side, I have and will experience failure. (NEVER a pleasant experience!) I am convinced that failure is as important as success and that, having experienced failure, I have a unique perspective which will allow me to give better care to my patients (because I can relate) and better instruction to upcoming training physicians. So, a long-winded statement, but I concur with your opinion. As painful as failure is, it is as important (if not more so) than success. One's reaction to it defines that person in a way that cannot be done with success.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by KC on 15th December 2007