Tell Me About a Time You Failed (Interview Question)


  • Use the CARL framework instead of STAR (full video)

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Why interviewers ask this question

Right off the bat, interviewers like to ask “tell me about a time you failed” to assess how you respond to failure.

They’re trying to gauge your self-awareness, determination, and willingness to improve.

So first, prepare a specific example to show your answer is authentic. Then, in that example, take responsibility, don’t blame others to show your professional maturity, and finally avoid talking about a huge failure since you don’t want to raise any red flags and come off as a liability.

Tip #1 - Define Failure

This is not a trick, it’s just taking control of the interview question by stating what failure means to us up front.

By doing so, we’re now defined what “failure” means on our own terms, and this helps me achieve several things:

  1. It takes all the ambiguity out of the equation. Failure obviously means different things to different people, and once you determine what failure is in this specific instance, the interviewer will most likely follow your lead
  2. This then allows you to set the right expectations at the very beginning: this is what failure means. This is what I did, and therefore this is why I failed

Once failure is defined, your story no longer needs to be an obvious failure, it just has to be whatever you define failure to be. So ironically, by stating what failure means to you, you set yourself up for success.

Tip #2 - Focus on One Thing

The reason so many people trip up on this “tell me about a time you failed” question is because they’re looking for a situation in which everything went wrong.

Let’s say you’re a social media manager for a retail company, and your primary responsibility is to manage the various social media accounts the brand is active on.

In this particular example, you want to shy away from failures like making typos that ended up damaging your employer’s brand image, since not being detail-oriented is arguably a repeating issue.

Instead, you might want to explain the core issue was you agreed to so many things that you were completely overwhelmed, and you had to learn how to say “no” effectively.

Tip #3 - End with a Learning

One of the key reasons interviewers ask “tell me about a mistake you made” is to see whether or not you have learned the lesson, because if you make the same mistake over and over, it would drive any hiring manager crazy.

Put another way, are you able to apply that new learning following your failure in a similar situation down the line?

And this is where the CARL method comes in, it stands for Context Action Result and Learnings.

To make sure the interviewer understands you fully grasp the key takeaway from your failure, it’s best to point to a specific situation where you were able to apply the same concepts, thus showing the mistake is unlikely to happen again.

Sample Answer

Ok Jeff, could you please tell me about a time you failed?

Sure, so for me, I define failure as overpromising on a given project and under delivering because I'm someone who's proud of the work I produce.


In this particular instance, I had just joined the marketing team and was responsible for running my first ever online event. Being the data geek that I am, I wanted to analyze our post event statistics and share learnings with our team. These numbers include things like attendance rate, average viewer duration, and qualitative feedback from our viewers. I had run online events before so I was familiar with how the raw data would be outputted. Usually you can just download all the information from the backend of the online platform in an excel format.


It just so happened we had a large regional meeting scheduled for that Thursday, and since the meeting only occurred on a monthly basis, I was eager to share my learnings from my Tuesday event. And so I asked the agency to send me the data by Wednesday morning, I would work on it Wednesday afternoon, and I'd be all good to go by Thursday. However, when I received the file, I realized the information was not in the correct format because we had switched service providers. While I knew about the switch, I incorrectly assumed the data output would still be the same.


As a result, I couldn't write the new formulas and clean the data in time for Thursday and so had to ping the meeting organizer to explain the situation. While she was able to find a replacement for my session, I felt really disappointed in myself because I clearly overpromised and underdelivered in this case, and there was really no excuse. I ended up writing an email of apology to the senior stakeholders of the meeting, explaining the situation, taking full responsibility, and asking for another opportunity to present the following month.


My biggest takeaway from this experience is to never make assumptions about data, especially when there has been a new change. I have since applied this learning to all my campaigns, and have actually caught a few issues before they became a real problem, like when we migrated to a new website and made sure all the tracking metrics were consistent before going live.

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