Win the Job Interview with Your Best Failure Story

job interview successIn my book, “What’s Your Story?”, I ask readers to consider telling different types of stories to ignite performance and be more successful; success, failure, fun and legends.

  • Success stories describe situations where things went exactly right and goals were met (Bada-bing!)
  • Failure stories are the ones where nothing went right, or it all looked good until the wheels came off (these stories are NOT “look what a moron I am!” … those tend to be Fun stories.)
  • Fun stories recount those situations where something goofy or unexpected happened
  • Legends are stories that come from history, spirituality, or culture… your classic “Once Upon A Time” stories

These types of stories that powerful leaders use to connect with and inspire – and impress – others. But what if I asked you to tell only one type? And further, what if I said you only have one type to tell in your job search and interview process? Which type would you choose?

Most would answer “Success stories!” Of course, right? You think success stories are appropriate in your job search efforts because “I want these employers to know how good I am, and so I’m going to tell them about my best successes!”


If I could wave my magic wand and choose for you, I would choose your failure stories.  “Wait”, you say, “are you &@#&%*% crazy??” Maybe, but let me make my case…

  1. An employer will not talk to you in the first place if you don’t have some basic qualifications (some successes like: schooling, previous employment, references).
  2. Second, most employers use the interview process to determine “fit” – and not those basic, success-based qualifications

The employer has done their research; they know you have the knowledge and skills to accomplish tasks. However, that does not mean you are the right person for the job. They need something more from you.

So, let’s just imagine you and I are both interviewing for the same position on the same day with the same person.  I go first. And, like every interviewer in the history of man, the interviewer asks; ”Tell me about a time you failed…” And I tell, like every interviewee in the history of man, a story about when I “failed” but where I really saved it at the end, demonstrating, of course, that even in a failure I am a success!

It goes like this: ”A time when I failed?  Good question. Several years ago, I was running a project for a client and I had brought the team together, crafted the deliverables, determined the right budget and gathered the resources we needed. About 3 months in, it became clear that I had under-estimated the budget and the team was not the right one for this project. The client started to see the seams and the wheels really started to come off. BUT…with only two weeks to spare, I was able to figure out what had gone wrong, correct the budget and move several people around. After working countless hours, we were able to deliver on time and on budget. The result was a delighted client and a successful project. Whew!”

Your interviewer has heard a version of this story many. many… many… times.

Now, it’s your turn. You get the same exact question; ”Tell me about a time you failed…”. And you tell the exact same story, but the conclusion is very different. You end it this way instead:

“…The client started to see the seams and the wheels really started to come off. They were not happy, and I had a mess on my hands. And you know what? I own that. And I learned a great deal from the experience.”

End of story. Crickets… No ”…and-then-I-saved-the-world-at-the-end-of-the-story” story.  Just a long pause to allow the recruiter to think.

There are three reasons why your failure story is more effective than mine:

First, the interviewer will think you the better fit.  Why? Because you have demonstrated that we all make mistakes. You have demonstrated humility. You have demonstrated maturity.

Second, you have shown confidence and coachability (and 7,012 other things that we don’t have room to discuss here). And, you didn’t do what everyone else is going to do: tell a success story masked as a failure story – while perhaps even failing to actually answer the question.

Finally, you will have the chance to tell them what you learned and how you changed your approach after failing. If you are brave and confident enough to share a true failure story and allow it to “sink in”… your interviewer will always ask, ”Wow. What did you do?”. You now have the ability to admit that failing created a big mess but that you became a better employee (or manager, or leader…) because of the experience.

There’s no contest here. You win. I lose. The irony: I told a success story… and you told a true failure story.

You answered the question… and you got the job.



For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at!




CraigCraig Wortmann is the CEO of Sales Engine, a sales consulting firm that helps others build and tune their sales engine. He is also the author of What’s Your Story?: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful and an entrepreneurship professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. You can connect with Craig on Twitter!



This entry was posted in Career Advice, Job Interviews, Job Search and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.