One common type of interview question that makes many job applicants nervous is any question about failure. One of the toughest interview questions about failure is, "Are you willing to fail?" It might feel unnatural to acknowledge your weaknesses and failures in an interview. However, there are ways to answer this question that will prove you are qualified for the job.
What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know
An employer will ask this question (and other questions about failure) for a number of reasons. Firstly, she or he may want to test your ability to cope with failure. Secondly, she or he may want to see whether or not you are willing to push yourself (through failure) to become a better employee.
When answering this question, you want to acknowledge that failure does happen, but emphasize that when you fail, you always learn from your mistakes, and become a better employee as a result. You also want to be clear that you do not fail too often.
With a strong answer, you can actually talk about failure in a way that highlights your strengths as a job candidate.
How to Answer, “Are You Willing to Fail?”
It's important to acknowledge that failure can be a good thing—it can provide you with a lesson that helps you grow as a person or employee. A person who answers the question by saying, “No, I’m not willing to fail” will appear unwilling to push him or herself to be better.
The best way to answer this question is to provide an example of a time you failed in the past, and then explain what you learned from it. Ideally, it will be a time you learned, in fact, to be a better employee.
When providing an example, explain what the situation was, and what you tried (and failed) to achieve. Then—and this is the most important part—explain what you learned from the experience. Perhaps you tried and failed to solve a problem using one technique, but then quickly learned to use another method. You might also state what steps you took to make sure you never made the same mistake again. Emphasize how you grew as a result of this failure.
You might also provide an example of a time that you did not fail, but thought that you might (or perhaps your colleagues or boss believed you would). For example, you might mention a time when you took on a new, challenging assignment that you were not sure you could finish, and then you did complete it. In your interview answer, explain the steps you took to push yourself while avoiding failure.
Examples of the Best Answers
Here are some examples of how to answer the question, “Are you willing to fail?” These responses all use the STAR interview response technique, in which you recall a Situation, explain the Task involved, describe the Action you took, and close with the Results of this action.
While I work hard to avoid errors in my work, I am willing to push myself to complete new and challenging tasks that I might be unable to accomplish. For example, I was once working on a team project, when three of our six team members had to leave the group to complete a different assignment. With half of our team gone, we thought the project might fail. However, I led our group in revising our team plan and setting new daily goals. We ended up completing the task on time and received praise from our company CEO for our thorough work. When I am faced with a challenge like this, one that has the potential to fail, I always step up to the plate.
Why It Works: This candidate puts a positive spin on the question by redefining “potential failure” as “calculated risk.” She then recalls the steps she took to successfully avert failure, demonstrating that she has the ability to proactively problem-solve when obstacles arise.
I am a creative thinker who is willing to develop and try out new ideas and strategies. Usually these ideas work, but when they fail, that is often when I learn the most. For instance, as a curriculum developer for a high school, I created a new elective course for freshmen. We performed a trial run of the course, and students did not respond well to the class. Rather than throwing our hands up, we received feedback from the students, reworked the class based on their responses, and ran the class again the next year. That year, the class got great reviews from the students. By trying new ideas out, we learn what doesn’t work, and how to make those things better.
Why It Works: Here the interviewee illustrates how failure can be valuable when it leads to improvement. Pointing out the advantages of “trial and error” is probably the safest, most strategic way to answer this question.
Yes, I believe failure is one of the best ways to learn and improve. For example, at my first job at a retail store, our company got a new computer-operated cash register. The first day I used the register, I did not know how to perform certain functions on it. Rather than give up or become overwhelmed, I stayed at work after closing to practice. A week later, I was the employee with the most knowledge about the register. I ended up giving a tutorial on using the register to the other clerks, because they were all having the same problems I initially did. By failing and then learning from that failure, I was able to become a leader at my job.
Why It Works: This candidate demonstrates his willingness to learn from his failures – always an excellent trait in an employee. He shows maturity in owning the fact that he at first failed in a work task, and then personal initiative in explaining how he made sure this wouldn’t happen again.
Tips for Giving the Best Answer
- Emphasize the Learning Process. Your interviewer wants to know if you can learn and grow from the mistakes you make.
- Turn the question to your advantage. Use your answer to “sell” the soft skills you possess that enable you to deal with pending failure. These might include competencies such as strategic planning, process analysis, time management, flexibility, and active problem-solving.
- Practice, practice, practice. Use the STAR interview response technique to come up with your good anecdotes that you could use should this question arise. Practice your response aloud, either in front of a mirror or – better yet – with a friend willing to role-play the part of an interviewer.
What Not to Say
Don’t mention a recent failure. While you want to acknowledge that failure can be a good thing, you also don’t want to imply that you will fail at job tasks all the time. Try to pick an example from the somewhat distant past, to show you have learned and improved from your past mistakes.
Don’t blame others. When explaining your failure, do not point fingers at others. Take full responsibility, even if someone else was involved. You do not want to appear to be the kind of employee who blames a boss or coworkers for your own problems.
Don’t mention a failure related to the job requirements. You do not want to give the employer any concern that you are not up to the requirements of the job. Therefore, don’t mention an example of a failure related to an important part of the job you’re applying for. For example, if you are applying for a job in coding, and you once made a big coding error that had horrible consequences, don’t mention this. Pick an example that is less directly related to the job.
Don’t mention drastic failures. Did you ever make a mistake that resulted in a financial loss for a company, or led to your firing? Don’t mention any of these big mistakes. Focus on a small mistake that you were able to fix relatively easily.
Don’t say “No.” When asked, “Are you willing to fail?” don’t answer with “No.” This makes you seem scared to push yourself to achieve bigger things. Also, don’t answer with, “I have never failed.” This will come across as insincere—everyone has failed in some small way at work.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- What did you like or dislike about your previous job? - Best Answers
- What is your greatest strength? - Best Answers
- What are the most difficult decisions to make? - Best Answers
ADMIT THAT FAILURE HAPPENS: Mistakes happen, in the workplace as in life. Instead of providing a “yes” or “no” answer to the question, “Are you willing to fail?” talk about either the strategies you’d take to reduce the fallout of potential failure or how you’ve learned from your mistakes in the past.
TELL A STORY: Use the STAR interview response technique to provide a good example of a previous time when you were able to turn failure into a positive learning experience.
KEEP IT MINOR: Don’t discuss a major failure you made or contributed to that had heavy consequences for your employer. Instead, talk about a common mistake that often occurs in your industry (such as the challenges of learning a new technology or a missed deadline caused by unanticipated understaffing or last-minute client demands).