Since we rarely know what’s going to happen during an interview, there’s a lot we can’t prepare for. We won’t know all of the questions they’re going to ask us or what exactly they’re looking for in a candidate. We won’t know how it’s going to go or whether we’ll get along well with our interviewer.
But there are some frequently used questions in interviews that we should always prepare beforehand, just in case we get asked those common questions.
The classic “failure” question
One such commonly used question is some version of the, “When have you experienced failure, and how did you handle it?” question. A few other possible iterations of it are, “Tell me about a time when you failed,” “What has been your biggest failure?” and “What are your strategies for coping with failure?”
Our resumes and cover letters typically tell a potential employer about our accomplishments, our greatest strengths, and the talents that we could offer to a workplace. We showcase the best parts of ourselves and the things that we think would appeal to hiring managers.
The classic “failure” question gives employers the chance to find out something about us that is likely not mentioned in our applications: our shortcomings and mistakes. Discussing these aspects of ourselves — and how we have dealt with them — reveal our humanity, expose our level of self-awareness, and help employers understand how we deal with adversity and stumbles. We get a chance to show our humility, our grace during hard times, and our resiliency.
So, while this is often a dreaded question, we should try to see it as an opportunity to show who we are and why we’re worth having on a team.
How not to respond to the “failure” question
Many of us make the mistake of responding in unhelpful or inappropriate ways to the “failure” question. In order to not make this mistake, avoid the following common blunders.
1. False modesty
The “failure” question is a time for humility — not false modesty. Don’t use the opportunity to brag and try to disguise it as a commentary on failure. In all likelihood, an interviewer will see right through this, and will almost certainly be turned off by your inability to discuss a true failure.
2. A failure without a takeaway
While choosing a true failure and explaining what happened is an essential part of answering the question, you want to make sure there’s a “takeaway” in the answer you give. Talk about the failure, but also talk about how you overcame it. Talk about the road bump, but also give the interviewer an understanding of how you handled it gracefully. Just explaining how you went wrong isn’t likely to get you very far when it comes to the “failure” question.
3. Not talking about any failure at all
The whole point of the “failure” question is to share a failure. So if, in an interview, you can’t come up with one, this isn’t going to be a good sign for your potential employer. They may take it as a sign that you aren’t self-aware enough to know how you’ve fallen short in life, or that you don’t take frequent enough or big enough risks to fail, or that you are hiding failures because you’re too concerned about sharing them. None of these suspicions will help you get hired, so make sure you’re aware of a failure and are comfortable sharing it.
4. How to approach and prepare for the “failure” question
Take the time leading up to an interview to make a list of failures you’ve experienced in life. A good place to start is career-related failures, but it can be worthwhile to include a whole range. Once you have a well-rounded list, consider which experiences would be most compelling to a potential employer and which you learned the most from.
Once you have this shorter, more selective list, take some time to jot down notes about the failure and how you handled it. Consider any ways it may have changed you or what you did to cope.
Doing this simple exercise can go a long way if you’re faced with the “failure” question in an interview.
The “failure” question — though often dreaded — is actually a great opportunity for showing potential employers interesting and compelling aspects of our personalities and previous experiences. If we prepare correctly and respond to the question in ways that showcase our self-awareness and strengths, we can give ourselves a big boost in the application process and be one step closer to landing that dream job.