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Interview Question: Tell Me about a Time You Failed

There are times in our lives when certain events offer a heaping dose of humility. Maybe that humble moment was being laid off or fired from a job you thought seemed so secure. Or maybe it was when you were overconfident about your favorite sports team — before it snatched defeat from the jaws of a potentially big victory and you had to face fans of the winning team. (For me, the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series: the wild pitch in Game Six, the slow roller through Bill Buckner’s legs at first base. True baseball fans will remember the collective agony within Red Sox Nation.)

Being overconfident about your favorite sports team is one thing, getting dumped by a significant other is another, and there's a whole new level of humility when you get laid off or fired from a job you thought seemed so secure. Yet, humility can also serve you well in the job interview, no matter how effective you are at "selling" yourself to a potential employer. You need to be effective at selling yourself to a potential employer, but without being cocky or arrogant. You need a balance of confidence and humility.

So, if a hiring manager were to ask "Tell me about a time you failed," how would you answer?

Doing that effectively requires you to know yourself, to think of a time when a work-related situation didn’t turn out quite as you had hoped, and — most important of all — to not be afraid to admit failure. Maybe you paid too much attention to details that caused you to miss a deadline, or you rushed a project to make a deadline by skipping a couple of critical steps. Or maybe your over-aggressive sales tactics got the better of you and you lost a potential client.

Everyone makes mistakes. A would-be employer knows that, so don't pretend you've never failed. An interviewer is interested in seeing how you took responsibility for your failure, what you learned from it, and how you would prevent similar failures from happening again.

If you can tell your story honestly and confidently, the interviewer may see someone who knows himself or herself well and is always looking to improve. That’s something just about any employer would value in an employee.

Have you ever had to tell a hiring manager about a time you failed? What did you say and did you get the job? Tell us.

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