I have been involved in a variety of interviews both at work and as part of the selection process in the town where I live. Most people are prepared for questions about their background and qualifications. But, at a whole lot of recent interviews that I have participated in, candidates looked like deer in the headlight when asked the question (or a variation thereof),

“Tell me about something that you failed at and what you learned from it”

A few people turn that question around and try to give themselves a back-handed compliment. For example, one that I heard today was,

“I get very absorbed in things that I do and end up doing an excellent job at them”

Really, why is this a failure? Can’t you get a better one?

Folks, if you plan to go to an interview, please think about this in advance and have a good answer to this one. In my mind, not being able to answer this question with a “real failure” and some “real learnings” is a disqualifier.

One thing that I firmly believe is that failure is a necessary by-product of showing initiative in just the same way as bugs are natural by-product of software development. And, if someone has not made mistakes, then they probably have not shown any initiative. And if they can’t recognize when they have made a mistake, that is scary too.

Finally, I have told people who have been in teams that I managed that it is perfectly fine to make a mistake; go for it. So long as it is legal, within company policy and in keeping with generally accepted norms of behavior, I would support them. So, please feel free to make a mistake and fail, but please, try to be creative and not make the same mistake again and again.

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42 Responses to Tell me about something you failed at, and what you learnt from it.

  1. Kevin says:

    I think this is a bad interview question because it’s very often mentioned in how-to-interview guides, and normal people often don’t have an answer on the tip of their tongue. So if someone has a great answer it’s more likely that they practiced their interviewing a lot than any real indication of their skills or personality.

    • Jeff says:

      Actually if you can answer it easily it probably means you *do* have both skill and personality. You have the skill to learn from your mistakes and completely internalize them. You have personality strength to have the courage to answer it and to not let failure affect your composure.

      Unless you comment was just sour grapes…

    • Macloud says:

      >normal people often don’t have an answer on the tip of their tongue

      First time I saw this question, I had an answer soon. I just thought about my previous work and found a failure. I tend not to repeat my failures, that means I learned how to avoid it. What is so hard about it? I’m not normal? What is the normal guy’s problem in answering this – he does not make mistakes, or he does not learn, or he forgets about them?

  2. Jesse says:

    “This interview!” And then I reach across the table and punch the guy.

  3. Mike Lewis says:

    I think it’s a great question! It gives me a chance to bring up a mistake I made in 1989, to show that I learned from it, to emphasize that I have many years of experience and also to imply that I haven’t made any mistakes as bad since then.

  4. phlog says:

    What a joke. I hate interview like this, where the interviewer is just reeling off questions after question they found on the internet. How about you answer it first, then I will talk to you. If you can’t engage in a proper conversation with someone, or evaluate someone with your own questions, then get over it.

  5. Dave says:

    Learnt? Clearly spelling isn’t a good example.

    • “Learnt” is a valid form of the past tense of “to learn”. It’s common in the UK. In the US it might be considered old-fashioned, but it is still valid.

      • Urca Braz says:

        Dave just got pwnt.

      • 67Coach says:

        Actually, “Learnt” may be an English slang term but it is never used in writing; therefore the correct spelling would “Learned”.

        Sorry to burst you bubble fella but I hate when people bash the English language and then blame it on us Brits!

        • amrith says:

          Have to say I disagree with you on this. My Oxford English Dictionary is pretty definitive about this, learnt is the past participle of learn.

          Furthermore, learnt is a word like many others (burn, dream, kneel, lean, leap, spell, spill, spoil, etc.,) that fall into this same category.

          Would you, for example, eschew burnt in favor of burned, spelt in favor of spelled, spoilt in favor of spoiled etc., ?

          -amrith

  6. I’m very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be a job candidate interviewer so early in my career. I’m 5 years out of college (actually, not quite), and I’ve been involved in every major interview for a programmer for my current client (whom I’m actually leaving next week) since the beginning of the year.

    I’ve used this question. Well, not exactly this question, but one very similar. I ask people to “tell me about a time you had a project that you didn’t know how to solve, and what you did about it.” It’s one of those questions that the actual answer is mostly unimportant, it’s the process of answering it that matters.

    If someone says they’ve never had such a project, I know one of two things, either A) the person has never been involved in a difficult project, probably because they do not care enough about their work to push their own limits, or B) the person recognizes that they have ridden off the coattails of their coworkers for their entire career and are trying to make themselves look competent.

    In truth, I don’t care how what the actual problem was that tripped up the person. The actual story doesn’t matter. I just care that they *have* a story. If they have a story, it tells me that they are honest with themselves about the fact that they don’t know everything. I want to see that honesty, and I want to see a willingness to confront problems head-on and destroy them, no matter what their previous experience may have been. Software development is probably the only field where people with 4-year degrees routinely encounter problems with unknown solutions and are tasked with solving them. This question, asking about failure, demonstrates to me the candidate’s attitude towards that inevitable unknown; do they seize in terror or forge on with courage?

    I ask a corollary question as well, “Tell me about a time you were particularly proud of a solution you created.” When I interview a programmer, I’m looking for someone who is just as passionate as I am. People who are not passionate about their work do it and then go home, putting it out of their minds until the next day. People who are passionate revel in the good jobs they do. It doesn’t have to be anything relatively impressive, again, the story itself is not that important. I more care about whether or not the candidate *has* a story. It tells me that they care enough about their work to want to be good at it, and to remember times where they *were* good at it.

    • James says:

      In response to your Evaluation of “If someone says they’ve never had such a project, I know one of two things,…”

      It seems naive to me that you think of only those two possibilities, and portend to know their values based on that. An alternate reasoning behind A, that happened to me was; they did not give me the chance to challenge myself. It was why I started job hunting. I would guess that this is common when it comes to small stable shops.
      A potential C is that they are to green or new to have been in on any of these projects.

      I am not saying your A and B are wrong. They do fit some people. Bit it’s narrow minded to thing to assume that ~90% of this type of person fall into this category.

  7. james gunther says:

    the question says more about the interviewer than the interviewee. it says they’re not really sure what to ask so they figured they’d google for some dumb questions.

  8. Tommy says:

    The problem with this question is that most people still look down on failures, so a candidate is best of trying to turn it around.

  9. Phil Plante says:

    The responses to this post are quite interesting. They range from outright attack of this method to absolute support of it.

    I find myself in support of this method because I have had to conduct many interviews myself for the startups I am involved in. All in all this question is fair for an interviewer to ask, as it gets to the core of the interviewee. It may be “harsh” to ask such a question in the view of many. However, the interviewee should be able to answer this question with an honest answer.

    The failure isn’t what is important here, its the humility of the person providing the answer.

  10. spuz says:

    I honestly can’t think of something I’ve done that would qualify as a ‘failure’. Sure I’ve done many things that could have been done better or even things that were plain stupid or wrong but they are not failures unless you are unable to resolve the situation. I’ve released bugs to production sure, but they are fixed now so I’m not sure that qualifies. Perhaps the closest thing that I can think of was the month or so of work that I did that I was pulled away from to do something more urgent (which I’m still working on a year later) which never got released.

    What kind of action qualifies as a failure?

    • Macloud says:

      I would say that production bug is a failure. You failed in avoiding production bugs. You should have not only fixed the bug, but also learned how to avoid such kind of bugs in the future.

      I think anything “bad” that you did and learned not to do again qualifies.

  11. Zach says:

    Yeah, being honest on that one sometimes qualifies as an automatic X. That’s why when I answer it I usually focus on The-Big-Life-Choices. For example, “I failed to choose the right profession right out of university. I went into structural engineering, where my creative thinking was not used most optimally. I have since moved into BI, where it is.”

  12. Oliver says:

    I like this question. There’s a lot of scope to explain your views of what makes something good, what makes something bad, and how you would improve on your past mistakes.

    It’s easy to turn it around to focus on positives, all you have to do, is explain how you would do it differently now. If you’ve been able to explain why it was bad in the first place, this should be easy.

    I can think of at least one project I worked on that I would, in retrospect at least, class as a failure. Sure, it worked, but now there’s some distance between me and it, I can see how some of the decisions I made were poor, and how they might cause problems. If asked about it, I can identify those poor decisions, explain why they were poor, explain how I’d recognise similar situations in the future, and how I’d approach similar problems to produce better results.

    I think a lot of the negative responses here are getting confused with the interview question that I hate: “What’s your biggest weakness/failing.” Which is difficult to turn into something positive without sounding like a jackass. This question attacks you, as you are now, now mistakes you’ve made in the past. It’s a lot harder.

  13. James says:

    What if we haven’t been around long enough for a “real” mistake. I can tell you about plenty of little mistakes, but probably not until my 3rd or 4th year developing did I make a “real” mistake. One that cost time and money to fix, and had multiple complex lessons.

    Would little mistakes be acceptable to you?

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  15. Chris Thompson says:

    I like this question, I use it when I interview people and I expect to be asked this question. More about that later; first, the comments on this post are very instructive in themselves.

    There are a couple of people (including myself) who feel that this is a good question. Then there is a whole vitriolic response chain from others saying this was a bad idea.

    But in contrast, the people feeling it is a good idea provided reasons and measured comments but the other side had issues with the question that were less substantive.

    Whether the questions came from Google or a book is irrelevant and does not detract from the question. And punching an interviewer is a sign of childishness and immaturity; (whether that is what the individual planned to do or that is just the best he or she could come up with is irrelevant).

    As an American who grew up overseas (my parents were in the foreign service), I notice a very different pattern with the way children are brought up in the United States from the way I grew up in Pakistan and the UK.

    For whatever reason, we in the United States have become a society that is reluctant to tell our children when they have failed or done worse than others. Comparison of this kind, we are told, will hurt the child.

    My children, and I love them dearly, are the slowest runners in the class. But, they get a huge trophy for athletics. When they do badly in school, they are not told that they did badly; instead the news is sugar coated. I think we do our children a disservice this way and it is reflected in some of the comments I see on this post from people who feel that they have never really failed.

    I am a software architect by profession. I have failed many times. Once I worked on a product that was fundamentally single-threaded. It was great, while it worked. Then it refused to scale. Getting that application to scale horizontally almost killed the company. This was early in my career and I spent a lot of time learning about multithreading and parallelism.

    Recently, I architected a system and I made sure that scalability and migration onto the cloud were possible. But, in so doing, I realized that the system may have an inherent failing by being multithreaded and parallel; I could not guarantee event ordering. As it is a financial system, it turns out that this is a problem. Trades coming into the system could, potentially, be fulfilled out of strict ordering because multiple threads go off and do things in parallel. So, I thought about this during the design and made sure that the system was safe.

    Individuals who feel that they have never really failed are either not good judges of their own performance or are underacheivers.

    If you feel you have never failed, you get to choose which of those two you are.

    Just my thoughts as one who has failed, many times, and I feel I have learned from many of them.

    And, yes, I grew up in the UK and ‘learnt’ is perfectly accurate. Just like colour.

    Nice article, and very informative responses.

    Chris.

    • anonymous says:

      You are a TRAITOR

      You are a Lefty Liberal Fascist

      USA USA USA USA
      The greatest country in the world.

      Pakistan is camel eating nomads and OSAMA. UK is a small island. Go back there if you think they are great.

      • amrith says:

        This comment is both inappropriate and uncalled for.

        But, in a sad way, it makes the point that Chris makes.

        Much as I disagree with it (at many levels), I will leave it here. It is a sad reflection of the state we are in where disagreement cannot be civil or rational.

        You make a great point Chris, thanks for the comment.

        -amrith

    • E says:

      The reason why interviewees often find this a bad idea is that many interviewers will hear a response and focus on the negative regardless of the lessons learned or improvements gained. This will usually lower your chances, if not outright kill them, during an interview. If the interviewer looks at it like Sean and you described, then that is great and a genuine answer will help you learn a lot about the person you are interviewing. However, it’s a large risk on the interviewees part to genuinely answer that question, because they do not know if you are of the former or latter type of interviewer.

      • LKRaider says:

        “because they do not know if you are of the former or latter type of interviewer.”

        That actually doesn’t matter, the interviewee just has to pick the one he would like to be employed by, and answer that way all the best he can.

        It’s not just the companies that have to get to know the candidates, but the opposite is true as well, since who you work for has a great impact on the quality of life and work you will do.

  16. Uncompetative says:

    The last time I failed was twenty years ago when I got a Syntax Error from mismatched parenthesis. This happened often enough for me to change how I input code. Now I type the closing parenthesis straight away, like:

    ()

    Then hit cursor left to insert the code within, then cursor right.

    Other than that I can’t think of anything…
    ;-)

    • Macloud says:

      While being a joke, it is still better than nothing. At least you show that you admit you make failures, and you learn from them. I can imagine guy getting Syntax Error all the time and not doing anything about it. That is the kind of answer I would expect.

  17. kelly61 says:

    Overall, the interviewing process can at times be “canned” responses to questions like this. I don’t really like the question or others such as this. The answers will most likely turn out to be prepared responses. http://www.whatupduck.com

  18. design says:

    This tests your bullshitting skills–nothing else. If they want to hire a bullshitter, great. If they want to hire someone who can do the work, then ask the interviewee about the fucking work. Fucking hiring managers… geesh.

  19. Rick says:

    This is a known bad interview question given by weak managers. The best thing to do is to just decline to answer it.

    • Macloud says:

      I don’t get it. Why don’y you just tell about bug you committed last week, how you fixed it, and how to avoid it in the future?

  20. Code Buddy says:

    Excellent question. Making mistakes is not something to worry about, but repeating them is. The ability to realise and admit you’ve made a mistake, and lets face it we all have, is certainly a good metric to differentiate candidates on.

  21. [...] Tell me about something you failed at, and what you learnt from it. I have been involved in a variety of interviews both at work and as part of the selection process in the town where I [...] [...]

  22. ValarMorghulis says:

    I got this question in an interview once. I was unable to think of any specific instances on the spot, so I went over my general process of troubleshooting failures and how I kind of roll the result into future troubleshooting. I later told my brother, who is a recruiter, about it. He then commented how it was a BS interview question for when the interviewer has run out of ideas, and is trying to fill time with un-targeted general questions that are likely to get canned answers. I did get an offer, but turned it down.

    Remeber interviewers, you are also being interviewed (although less so in this economy).

  23. allison says:

    This actually isn’t one of the questions I like as it does tend to lead to odd answers and, in general, answers that a person can, if skillful enough, BS through. Though apparently not the people you are talking to!

    Another thing I’ve begun to notice, I seem to gain more knowledge from past successes than past failures. Past failures only teach me what not to do; not what to do if you get my meaning.

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  25. finascarfo says:

    test

  26. jpennell2009 says:

    I think it is so true that if u havent failed at anything you either havent took the inisitive or its bound to happen soon or later. It is not bad to make mistakes because even makes them and no one is perfect. Once you do make a mistake though you have to try to think ok how am i going to improve this so it wont happen again. Eventually after that failure you will see that you are starting to go up and being successful again. But your gonna make more then one mistake thats a givin for everyone. But i wanted to say sometimes when people make mistakes they tend to stress out more. Once you make a mistake try to look at the bright side i know its hard to but trust me you will feel better. Then start thinking of ways to overcome this overwelming delima. Things will workout i promise!

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