Job Interview Question: What have you learned from past failures or mistakes?

Nobody likes to talk about their mistakes, but being able to discuss failures and what you learned from them is an important component of having a successful job interview. If you can do this, you can use this as a way to impress the interviewer. So why are job interview questions about failures asked? Read all about it in this blog.

Just like you should prepare for other frequently asked job interview questions, this one is no different. It’s common for the interviewer to ask about any failures in your career or where you could use some improvements in your skillset. It’s up to you to show an appropriate amount of humility and honesty to give examples about past failures and what you learned. In addition, your focus should be on making yourself look as good as possible.

Why is the interviewer asking about past failures and mistakes?

The interviewer wants to know if you are able to talk about past failures and if you can be honest about certain situations in which things went south. It’s important that you are able to take responsibility and have self-reflection. This is also an important point when you’re talking about failures; make sure you talk about you and your situation. Don’t point fingers to others and acknowledge the role that you played in the situation.

Needless to say, it’s relatively easy to fail this question by saying, for instance, that you did not have a failure in previous positions.

The interviewer wants to hear from you about what happened and what went wrong. It’s up to you to describe this concise, but with just enough detail to discuss your role and what you learned from it. The best way to do this is according to the STAR-Method. The STAR-Method allows you to give a concise and concrete answer to the question of the interviewer. In addition, it’s a logical flow of describing a work environment situation in which you explain the situation, your task, your actions, and the results that came out of those.

In short, the interviewer is interested in your past failures to learn more about your past job performance. Behavioral job interview questions are always part of job interviews, but this specific question asks you to talk about negative experiences, which is difficult for anyone. Underlying questions that the interviewer wants to be answered by asking this question are, for instance:

  • Are you able to learn from failures?
  • Are you sufficiently self-aware to recognize and acknowledge failures or weaknesses?
  • What’s your general view on risk, failure, and success?
  • Are you a person who takes calculated risks?

How to prepare to talk about your failures and what you learned from them

When you’re invited to a job interview, and you’re walking through your resume, you should, of course, prepare for common interview questions. It’s your goal to make yourself look as good as possible for the role that you’re applying for.

Interviewers are always interested in how you acted in certain situations and what you’ve learned from them. By asking about a time when you failed, the interviewer is expecting from you to discuss a situation in which you acknowledged mistakes and at the same time tell about what you learned from it.

Understanding that you need to have such qualities to succeed in a work environment can be your key in showing that you’re the right person for the job. It’s, therefore important that you have thought about a couple of examples prior to the interview. If you can bring up certain situations right after the question is asked, this shows that you have self-knowledge and that you take the interview seriously by preparing.

Consider the following points in preparing your answers to the question that requires you talk about your failures:

Be serious

Approach this question carefully. Choose a serious situation that occurred during work that shows that you possess a certain level of self-awareness. Understand that the interviewer wants to get an understanding of if you are able to spot red flags and flaws in your work.

Honesty

The first step to formulating an answer is the ability acknowledging that you, just like anyone else, make mistakes. It’s important to show self-awareness and that you’re able to admit you made a mistake. Therefore, make sure that you refer to a specific mistake that you made in your career. Again, nobody’s perfect, so be candid; this will be appreciated.

Responsibility

The interviewer is interested to see what’s your view on accountability. You show this by taking responsibility for mistakes in your career and focussing on you. Therefore, make sure your answer relates to a work situation that, for instance, occurred due a misunderstanding or oversight. In addition, avoid answers that could reveal a failure on your side; this could imply a lack of professionalism. Also, don’t involve emotions or try to blame others in situations you’re discussing.

Focus on the resolution

After you discussed a certain situation continue with how you addressed the problem. Focus on the steps you took to correct it. Generally, interviewers are interested in how you approach complications and how you handle problems.

Discuss what you have learned

So, say you provided an honest answer about a situation that happened due to a misunderstanding. You’ve acknowledged a mistake and discussed what you did to address it, but what now? Always give additional context about what’s probably the most important part of your story; what you learned from it. This actually may look harder than it is. Basically, the message you’re trying to convey is that you analyzed hat went wrong, what you learned and what actions you took to make sure it won’t happen again.

An example answer:

‘At my previous job, I made a planning mistake by underestimating the amount of time that it would take to arrange a data room. For me, it was the first time working with a certain program, and I did not realize that it would take me more time to get acquainted and efficiently go through it. Lucky for me, I noticed in time that I needed help, so I asked my coworker to give me some additional training. For me, it was a valuable lesson not to underestimate working with new programs when under time pressure. I’ve worked on my time management and prioritization skills. Before I start a project now, I take time to map out a schedule and planning table of things that need to be taken care of before a project starts.’

Sample answers to job interview questions about failures

You can use the example answers to construct your own. Ensure that you directly answer the question but don’t raise any red flags by telling a story that could make you look bad. Focus on what you learned from the mistake and how you addressed it.

Sample answer 1 (student or graduate answer)

‘An example that I can think of is when I was in college. In one of my courses, I was overconfident in preparing for one of my exams. This was a good lesson for me because I realized that saving the grade would require some serious effort. After I got that wake-up call, I studied extra hard and took extra lessons. I set goals for the second and third exams and got straight A’s on both. Not only did I get my grade back up, but I learned not to underestimate situations.’

Sample answer 2 (entrepreneur example)

‘I started my own company that failed after three years during the financial crisis because we could not close a follow-up investment. However, my entrepreneurial adventure led to other opportunities. I gained significant management skills and got asked for a position at another start-up. The opportunity allowed me to develop my sales skills while running my own team there. I applied to this job because I’m ready to make the step to a larger company to grow further and reach my career goals.’

Sample answer 3 (general)

‘A client asked us to bid on a project in a tender, and I told him that our company could do it within four weeks. With the knowledge, I had at the time, I thought this should be doable within that timeframe. It took us more time to collect all the needed data. In hindsight, I realize that I should’ve been more careful when making quick estimates to a client and discuss the process with each discipline in the team. The client understood when I contacted him about the data collection process. We both agreed that we should do the deal right and make a proper start. If I did not contact him right away about the delay and would try to keep up to my promise, I would have disappointed him and come across as unreliable. For me, this experience gave me insight into what I should do better in the future. I’ve worked on my expectation management skills towards clients on new projects. At the start of a new project, I gather my team to collectively make calculated estimations about the work that needs to be done.’

Job Interview Topics – Common Job Interview Questions & Answers

Below you can find a list of common job interview topics. Each link will direct you to an article regarding the specific topics that discuss commonly asked interview questions. Furthermore, each article discusses why the interviewer asks these questions and how you answer them!

  1. Accomplishments
  2. Adaptability
  3. Admission
  4. Behavioral
  5. Career Change
  6. Career Goals
  7. Communication
  8. Competency
  9. Conflict Resolution
  10. Creative Thinking
  11. Cultural Fit
  12. Customer Service
  13. Direct
  14. Experience
  15. Government
  16. Graduate
  17. Growth Potential
  18. Honesty & Integrity
  19. Illegal
  20. Inappropriate
  21. Job Satisfaction
  22. Leadership
  23. Management
  24. Entry-Level & No experience
  25. Performance-Based
  26. Personal
  27. Prioritization & Time Management
  28. Problem-solving
  29. Salary
  30. Situational & Scenario-based
  31. Stress Management
  32. Teamwork
  33. Telephone Interview
  34. Tough
  35. Uncomfortable
  36. Work Ethic