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What has been the biggest setback in your career?
The Real Question: Are you resilient? Are you honest?
Top-line Tactic: Be frank about your failure but positive about what you learned.
Your first reaction to this question is probably an inward groan. Of course no one likes to dwell on his or her failures, but try not to be too down on questions like this. It’s best to view the interviewer’s attempts to probe your setbacks not as sadism or an attempt to trip you up, but rather as a chance to demonstrate two extremely valuable characteristics—frankness and resilience.
The secret to acing this sort of tricky question is to strike a balance between light and dark. Don’t say you’ve never had one. Instead, speak honestly about a real setback, but also accentuate the positive aspects of the experience—how resilient you were in the face of failure and what you learned from the experience, even if it’s simply that you won’t be making the same mistake again.
The interviewer cares far more about how you responded to adversity than the particular circumstance you faced. Ultimately, you want to present the setback as evidence of both your humility and a lesson learned on someone else’s watch that has made you stronger. For this reason, it’s not necessary to bore your questioner with the particulars of your failure. Just give an overview, such as:
At my last job, I was asked to manage a large project. We worked with consultants to create a project plan and estimate costs, but when we presented our plan to the CEO, he wanted a major change. I could see what he wanted would never work, but I was too scared to speak up in that meeting and say so.
So we tried to accommodate the CEO’s request and it was a disaster. However, being on that project taught me two valuable lessons: first, speak up when you think something is wrong—at least it shows you’re paying attention and it could avoid a potentially serious problem. Second, I now know how to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy, where good money is thrown at a problem in the false hope that it will somehow rectify an inherent flaw.
Younger job seekers or recent graduates may not yet have experienced a significant career setback. Be honest about this with your interviewer but try to offer an example from your education or work experience that conveys the same message of perseverance and your ability to snatch something positive from a negative situation.
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