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 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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