It’s inevitable, someone is going to ask you to describe a time you failed. Whether the question is on a graduate school essay or in an interview to land a job, you’re going to have to talk about failing. And there’s no getting around the fact that answering this question can feel cringeworthy. But knowing how to talk about your failure is critical in showcasing just how mature and genuine you really are. Here’s how to pull off a well-thought-out answer when the inevitable happens:
Say something real
The key to talking about failure is picking an actual failure. No one wants to know about the time you got a B or when you had a typo in a presentation. Disingenuous isn’t really the vibe you want to go for. Instead think of a time your actions (or lack of actions) directly led to a failure. When thinking of this moment, it’s useful to define failure for yourself (and in your answer). Is it a time you didn’t meet your own goals? Or fell short of expectations? Jot down a few moments that come to mind to have in your back pocket as your go-to answers.
This is a big one! When talking about failure you need to own your failure. It’s tempting to place the blame on other factors to downplay your failure. Try not to talk about variables such as how busy your schedule was or how exhausted you were. While it may be true, it comes off as making excuses for your behavior. Also be wary of bringing up other people in your story. Talking about your team letting you down or how your supervisor wasn’t clear sounds like you’re throwing people under the bus. And that’s not a quality future employers go for.
Strike a balance
Picking the right tone is an art form. It’s easy to default to self-deprecating language that puts you down. Whether this is your sense of humor or a reflection of feeling not so great about the story, it’s best to stick to a matter of fact tone. It can also be just as easy to fall into sugarcoating your story to downplay what happened. When looking for that perfect balance, try writing out your story and reading it like it was written by someone else. Adding this element of impartiality will help you identify where the tone might need to shift to be as honest and upfront as possible.
Describe what you learned
Identify what you learned from your failure. When people ask you to talk about a failure they usually have two goals in mind. The first is to get a pulse on your self-awareness and maturity. The second is to see how you respond in a time of crisis. They want to see that you view failure as an opportunity to grow. Try jotting down a list of lessons learned for each failure you want to share. Not only will it showcase that you learn from your mistakes, it will help you end your failure story on a positive note.
Last but not least, remember that practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to grab a friend or mentor and ask them to hear your failure story. Having a polished answer prepared will make you seem that much more impressive when you’re finally asked the inevitable. Good luck!