How To Answer: Tell Me About a Time You FailedBy Tang Kai Long • 6 min read
“Now, tell me about a time you failed.”
As prepared as you are, many would rather not have to answer this question in an interview. Why?
Because talking about your failures in order to secure a coveted job doesn’t sound at all intuitive. It doesn’t come naturally, you start flustering, and that’s when the interview starts going downhill.
Still, it remains a popular question because it reveals many different things to the interviewer. And if you prepare well, this question can help you set yourself apart from other candidates. In this guide, we’ve put together everything you need to best answer this interview question:
- Why do interviewers ask about the time you failed?
- What does a bad answer look like?
- What does a good answer look like?
- How can you prepare for this interview question?
- Examples 🙂
Why do interviewers ask about the time you failed?
To effectively craft your answer, you first have to understand the intention of the question, and what the interviewer is looking for. Many people fail to realise that there are many questions (and many intentions) hidden in this one big question.
Let’s break it down.
Think: What are they trying to achieve by asking you to tell them about a time you failed?
Evaluate your self-awareness
Everybody makes mistakes, but only few acknowledge it.
Interviewers want to see you take responsibility for your mistakes and acknowledge your weaknesses – both of which reflect a good deal of self-awareness.
They want to hire someone who learns from their failure
Interviewers don’t expect you to be perfect. They know that everybody fails.
What they’re looking for is the transparent “part two” to the question that demonstrates growth: “Tell me about a time you failed, and what did you learn from it?” Interviewers want to know whether you failed smart, and how you used what you learnt to improve.
See how you’ll prevent it from happening again
Nobody wants to hire someone who makes the same mistakes again and again. Above all, interviewers want to be reassured that the same mistake would not repeat itself.
Understand you as a person
What do you consider a failure? Do you make your failure about yourself (e.g. failed promotion) or the team (e.g. failed project)? Is it a failure in your work or personal life?
Your interpretation of the question and choice of failure says a lot about your personality.
Uncover potential red flags
If the failure could have been easily avoided and the result of poor effort on your part, that may be a red flag they want to avoid. Other red flags: poor work ethics, questionable integrity, lack of a growth mindset, lack of specific skills, etc.
What does a bad answer look like?
Common pitfalls in answering this interview question are often a result of trying to look good or polished to the interviewer. Ironically, this often backfires and makes you look really bad.
On the other end of the spectrum, many candidates unknowingly put themselves in a bad light they can never come back from. Do whatever you can to avoid this.
Examples of bad answers to steer clear of:
- “I have never failed before.”
- “I made my previous company go bankrupt.”
- “… but it’s not my fault.”
- “… because I was too lazy/unmotivated/indifferent.”
- Anything fictional. Interviewers can tell if you’re cooking up a story.
What does a good answer look like?
Alas, it is never enough to “do just fine”. To get ahead of other candidates, you have to impress your interviewer. You have to do more than just telling your interviewer about a time you failed.
Now that we know why interviewers ask this question, a good answer should tick all the boxes. Here’s an example of how a good answer looks like:
- What the failure was
- How you dealt with the failure and what you did to fix it
- How you plan to avoid such issues in future
- What you learnt from this and how you’ve changed
- How all of it relates to the job you’re interviewing for
Keep your story concise and emphasise the key takeaways. Leverage on your failure to accentuate your strengths. Don’t just tell the interviewer about the time you failed. Instead, let them know how you turned it around in your favour.
How can you prepare for this interview question?
Preparation does not mean drafting a flawless story and regurgitating it during the interview. Instead, piece together what the interviewer is looking for and what a good answer comprises.
Think: What does a perfect candidate look like?
Study the job you’re interviewing for. Understand what it expects from you. Identify what the perfect candidate would look like, in terms of skills, experiences, personality, motivations, etc.
Choose your failure based on this
The solution or lesson learnt should clearly show how you demonstrate one or more traits the perfect candidate would have.
You will come off as a more suitable candidate, as you’ve learnt an important lesson the hard way. And your previous employer has paid the tuition fees for that.
Don’t sabotage yourself
Practice selective honesty. Do not choose a failure that was easily avoidable, absolutely disastrous, or uncovers serious red flags.
Highlight the takeaways for the interviewer
How does everything you’ve said relate to why you’re the right candidate? What should the interviewer remember about you after the interview? Make it explicit. Highlight and emphasise it for the interviewer.
Remember, always play to your strengths. And downplay any unnecessary information that may otherwise damage your reputation.
Let’s go through a few examples.
These examples serve only as a guide. While similar in structure, all answers are unique in their own way, as it should be with yours.
Why is this a good answer?
- Demonstrated an understanding of the root cause for the failure.
- Quantified the impact of his actions, proving that his approach works.
Why is this a good answer?
- Demonstrated how he would prevent the same mistakes from happening.
- Guided the interviewer through the exact steps he took to improve his situation.
Why is this a good answer?
- While it may appear that it was his colleague’s fault, he took responsibility for the mistake. This demonstrates a high level of self-awareness and internal locus of control.
- If this role involves managing a team, it showcases his transferable skills he can apply in the new role.
Failure is a stepping stone to success. Be open enough to talk about your failures during your interview, but be strategic enough to tell your interviewer what you have learnt.
Level up your interview game today.
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