Talking about past failures in a job interview can be rather perplexing. But while it’s not the most common job interview question, “Tell me about a time when you failed” does come up.
You want to impress, but you’re explicitly being asked to talk about something you failed at. So what do you do? How do you answer this honestly without scaring away your potential employer by bringing up that time you lost your company a lot of money?
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, follow these four steps.
How to answer “Tell me about a time you failed”
Here’s how to put together your response.
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. For example, if you’re interviewing for an account management position, maybe don’t tell them about the time you lost your company’s largest client in a huge blowup.
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 if you can. Choose a story in which something fairly important didn’t go right due to your personal actions (or lack of actions)—not something smaller that might be classified as a mistake.
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 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, which also gives your interviewer insight into how you approach your work.
Here are three examples of what this might sound like:
- “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 point 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 sugarcoat things. Additionally, make sure that you take responsibility for your actions and don’t put the blame on others for your failure.
4. Share what you learned.
Finally, at the end of your response, after you relay the disappointing outcome of your story, you get to the good stuff: the lessons you 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.
Here are a couple of examples of what you could say:
- “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.”
Example answers for “Tell me about a time you failed”
Here’s what a full answer might look like for a new grad talking about a school project:
“To me, I’ve failed any time I turn in work that I feel I could have done better with the resources allotted. One time, in my junior year of college, the final for an engineering class was to build a small, functioning hovercraft. Each team was given $300 for supplies as well as access to the engineering school’s supply storage. I was responsible for the construction of the hovercraft, including ordering any needed supplies. I quickly made a list of supplies we needed and ordered them online. Unfortunately, getting everything on my list was too expensive so I cut a few components from our design. When I saw other teams constructing their hovercrafts, they had way more supplies than we did. I realized that if I had checked the supply storage before making my list and taken the time to look around for better prices instead of taking the first thing I saw online, I could’ve saved significantly. The rest of my team did a great job on their parts, but I knew I could’ve done better. I emailed my professor directly to take responsibility for our hovercraft’s underperformance. I ended up with a lower grade on the project than the rest of my group, but I’m glad I didn’t bring them down. I learned to always take my time before using any resources I’m given to make sure that I’m using them wisely, and never make a purchase before shopping around a bit—both in work and outside of it.
Or if you’re talking about a work failure, you might say:
“To me, failure is when you give up without trying everything you reasonably can. When I was an email marketing associate, my company rolled out some new KPIs that were fairly aggressive, including that all email newsletters should be growing their subscriber lists at a rate of 25% per quarter. I was floored. It felt like too much to ask for, and I had no idea how to get it done. So I continued to focus primarily on my other KPIs. After about a month, my boss asked how my numbers were looking. I admitted they were about the same and I hadn’t done anything differently. I could tell she was upset. She immediately tasked me with coming up with three possible ideas to grow the subscriber list and sending them to her by the end of the next day. It didn’t matter how small or basic or out there they were, she just wanted to see a list. Then, we talked through each of my ideas and how to accomplish them and came up with more. I ended up implementing a few, but starting so far into the quarter, I only saw growth of 12%, so I failed to meet the goal. But by continuing to try new things the next quarter, I was able to grow my list by 26%. I learned that if something feels too big, I should never ignore it and instead try to break it down or reach out for help. This early experience turned me into someone who is super conscientious and effective when it comes to pursuing new goals—the more challenging, the better.”
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 see 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.
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.