Job Interviews: How To Answer “Have You Ever Failed at Anything?” Question
Published on: January 23, 2020
It might be strange to think of failure as a good thing, but even the most successful people have probably failed at something at least once. Their secret? They learn from their mistakes. So when an interviewer asks you the "have you ever failed" interview question, see it as a great chance to turn failure into interview success!
But first, before we look at the best ways to respond to one of the most frequently asked questions, let's take a look at why interviewers even ask it.
Why interviewers might ask you to answer failure question
When I was in my in my last semester at grad school, I was busily interviewing for jobs at banks and investment banks. And I was trying my hardest to look "perfect", since I knew there were always people with higher grades and better connections.
But I was also rather naive and inexperienced. And I knew almost nothing about job interviews! So when an SVP asked me "have you ever failed at anything?", I got nervous inside thinking about all the ways my answer might go wrong, so I just blurted out a simple "no" and looked the interviewer in the eyes, hoping to see approval.
Instead, he turned to me and said "Too bad. You learn a lot from failure." And we talked about that for a while. I was lucky that he was feeling fatherly toward me – and he offered me some great advice about the value of failure … and the value of trying things that might fail.
After a few more rounds of interviews I wound up getting the job offer anyway, but I always remembered what he said. He was right. How we handle failure can say a lot about who we are and how we will handle things that go wrong in a new job – and they will go wrong.
Why this question makes us uncomfortable
I think this question touches on our deepest insecurities. Just as I was trying to be so "perfect" in that interview, we worry that people will judge us if we even admit to having failed at something. And so we often try to cover up any mistakes or failures.
But great scientists and leaders and people who have made real change happen, all had to take a chance at failing. And when they did fail, the thing that sets them apart from those that don't succeed or don't even try – is that they know deep inside that they will find a way.
And so they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue forward, maybe looking for things to change or new allies to help – but with the very real belief that they will get there eventually. And many of us are afraid that even the smallest failure means we won't get there.
How to prepare for the failure question
What employers are looking for is someone who knows that somehow, some way they will get there. And that they are resilient enough to handle any problems or obstacles when they do arise with a good sense of perspective, confidence, willingness to look at ways they can improve themselves or the situation, and then the flexibility to regroup and move forward again.
To answer the question effectively, you want to go through your work history and come up with an example of something that went wrong or a mistake you made or a project that failed where you found a way to turn things around – or at least learned a lesson that you can show you later applied successfully.
A strong story from your personal life or volunteering or even school would also be ok if you don't have anything else to offer (and if it doesn't don't reveal too much personal information), but a workplace story is the best.
Just remember that the idea is to have something that isn't TOO bad that shows your resilience, determination, problem solving skills and a sense of someone they can trust to handle things even if things go wrong!