4 Steps for Answering "Tell Me About a Time You Failed"
While not the most common interview question, the failure question—should you get it—is rather perplexing. How do you answer this honestly while also not scaring away your potential future employer by bringing up that time you fat-fingered a trade and lost the company a lot of money?
It’s a tricky situation to be in. You want to impress, but you’re explicitly being asked to talk about something you failed at. So, what do you do?
First things first, stay calm. Take a deep breath and say something like, “Wow, that’s a great question. I’m going to have to think about that for a second.” Then, think about it for a second and follow these four steps.
1. Pick a Real Failure
Step one is to pick a failure. Don’t try to weasel your way out of this by talking about that one time you got a B in a college class. You’re not fooling anyone. At the same time, you probably also want to shy away from any colossal failures related to the kind of work you’re applying for. If the interviewer specifically asks for something related to work, try to at least pull the story from something that happened a long time ago. Choose a story in which something fairly important didn’t go right due to your personal actions (or lack of actions).
Note that I said “something” and not “everything”—the reason people so frequently trip up on this question is because they’re looking for a situation in which everything went wrong. You only need one thing to go wrong for your answer to work.
2. Define Failure in Your Own Words
The reason why you don’t need to talk about some immense failure in which everything goes catastrophically and comically wrong is because you’re going to spell out why you felt this situation was a failure.
After you’ve picked your story, define failure in a way that works for it. Once failure is defined, your story no longer needs to be an obvious failure; it just has to be whatever you define failure to be. Here are a few examples:
To me, failure is about not meeting expectations—others’ as well as my own.
As a manager, I consider it a failure whenever I’m caught by surprise. I strive to know what’s going on with my team and their work.
I think failure is more than just not meeting a goal, it’s about not meeting a goal with the resources you’re given. If I end up taking more time or supplies than I was originally allotted, that feels like a failure to me.
3. Tell Your Story
Now that you’ve established how you evaluate failure, tell the story that you chose. Try not to spend too much time setting the stage, and get to the punch line quickly. Interviewers don’t ask this question to see you squirm, they want to know how you handle setbacks—so get to the part where you’re dealing with the failure as quickly as possible.
Start with the situation, and explain why it was challenging. Then go into what you specifically did to try and rectify it. Presumably, since this is about failure, you will not be successful or will only be partially successful. That’s fine. Do not try to cover up the fact that things didn’t all go as planned. It’s impossible to do well in an interview if the interviewer doesn’t believe what you’re saying, so don’t try to sugar coat things.
4. Share What You Learned
Finally, at the end of your response, after you relay the awful outcome of your story, you get to the good stuff. You want to wrap up with your lessons learned.
Talk about why you think things went badly, maybe what you would have done in hindsight, and, of course, what you’ll be doing going forward. It might sound something like this:
Our big problem was assuming that we would be able to get clean data from users. It’s one of my biggest takeaways from the experience: Never make assumptions about the data. I haven’t made that mistake again.
If I had just communicated the first few bumps in the road, we could have managed our client’s expectations, but because we didn’t, we damaged the relationship. Now, I never let an uncomfortable conversation prevent me from communicating the status of a project transparently.
The failure question frequently takes people by surprise. Even if you’re prepared for it, talking about failure is difficult. The key to answering this question well is first framing the way you evaluate failure and then finishing with your key takeaways from the experience. If you sandwich your story with these two components, you’ll definitely have a strong answer.
Photo of drowning man courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Lily Zhang serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT where she works with a range of students from undergraduates to PhDs on how to reach their career aspirations. When she's not indulging in a new book or video game, she's thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.