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4 Steps for Answering "Tell Me About a Time When You Failed"

While not the most common job 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 lost your 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.


What This Sounds 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.