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Don’t be scared to talk about your failures

talking about failures

Talking about things that went wrong can help you build your personal brand. I know it sounds ridiculous, especially when everyone else appears to be doing everything perfectly. But I mean it – talking about your failures may actually be useful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging you to blindly boast about your missteps. That could be seen as pettiness or indifference, like wanting to grab other people’s attention or being unaware of what you do. 

But let’s get back to the point. You did a poor job and you still boast about it? Seems crazy, doesn’t it? But if you do it wisely, it can actually work. And I will prove it. 

Failure happens to everyone

Here is a cool story from Princeton University. Johannes Haushofer, a Princeton professor, posted a CV of failures on his professional website. And you know what? That drew much more attention than the sum of all his successes. There is also a similar movement called FuckUp Nights in which people share their professional failures. It’s not about advertising what kind of ventures worked out and how people became millionaires. It’s about enterprises that actually weren’t successful. That’s sincere and, frankly, much more interesting. By the way, I love their slogan “we live life without filters”!

All of those examples lead to one point: behind each success there is a slew of failures. That’s true for everyone, even Princeton professors. Moreover, admitting to your personal failures draws attention to you and makes you more human. And that’s something you can use while talking about yourself on a job interview or, dare I say, during a casual introduction meeting.

Show people what you’ve learned

Mentioning what went wrong actually builds your personal brand as an expert. It shows that you are able learn from your mistakes and adapt to new situations. You should treat it as an asset that can set you apart from others, for instance from other candidates applying for the same position. And there are a few good practices that will teach you how to talk about failures.

First of all, don’t use excuses. Don’t blame others. Everyone makes mistakes and so you do. Be accountable for what you do and show that you’re responsible for your mistakes. If you start by explaining that a particular failure was the result of sloppy work done by your team or inexperienced company managers, you risk being labeled as someone irresponsible, a person who puts more effort into blaming others rather than improving oneself.

Secondly, show what you’ve learned from the experience. It’s not enough to say “I failed”. Prepare a couple of meaningful insights about it and summarize what lessons you took from this struggle. Show what you were able to improve after you’ve failed. Maybe you changed the way you manage people or you became more assertive about deadlines, like so: 

“That was a useful lesson for me. Now I know I have to thoroughly analyze every potential risk before starting any project and I always plan some buffer time in advance, so that my team is prevented from working overtime under pressure. In the end, it’s the tension that destroys relationships between people and makes them demotivated.”

Turning a negative situation into a positive outcome. You failed, but you also learned. That’s the most valuable conclusion. You can also look into storytelling tips, which will help you turn things around.

Show your reaction to failure

You should demonstrate how you approached a particular problem when talking about your failures. Your actions after a failed undertaking reveal your attitude and your values. 

It’s easy to stay relaxed and professional when everything works fine. But when you need to work under pressure, because your deadline has already passed, people are working overtime or a mistake crept into your plan, that’s when your true colors come out.

That’s a chance for you to show that even during tough times, you are able to think in a calm and reasonable way. That you are able to admit to a mistake and think of possible solutions. Handling pressure and managing failures are much more important than succeeding when everything is perfect.

“Once I realized how serious my mistake was, I started to gather all the important information. Who was going to be affected and what would happen if we didn’t release the system. Then I gathered all the experts and managers to find out what possible options we had…”

There is nothing worse than someone who doesn’t take full responsibility for his actions and gets too emotional when everything starts falling apart. Being able to react calmly in a stressful situation and to solve problems under pressure are the skills that employers expect you have. 

Stay human

In times of flawlessness proudly displayed on social media, like Instagram and LinkedIn, it’s hard to admit to mediocrity, and as such, to talk about failures and projects that went wrong. It’s not easy to say “I made a mistake” or “Yes, I failed”, when everyone else seems to be an expert in their professional field.

Some say that you can’t really know a person until you find out what they’ve been through. Failures are a good way to present yourself in a more human way, especially when you are able to show what you’ve learned by failing and how you reacted to that predicament. It shows that nothing can keep you down and you’re able to fix your mistakes against all odds.


Johannes Haushofer – CV of failures