How to Answer the Infamous "What was your greatest mistake?" Question

July 16, 2014 2 mins read
How to Answer the Infamous "What was your greatest mistake?" Question

Out of all of the mandatory questions that HR staff are likely to ask you during a job interview, the one that is most likely to put butterflies in your stomach or leave you at a loss for words is “What is the greatest mistake you’ve made?”

Even those candidates who are well prepared may not properly grasp the true intention behind the interviewer’s question, and may therefore give an answer that misses the point. Some candidates try to blame a failure on impersonal factors, or put it all down to sheer hazard, whereas others will tone down details of the incident while placing all the emphasis on their ability to “save the day”.

Before we discuss the best approach to answering this question, let’s focus on the nature of the question itself. In asking it, HR staff aren’t looking to find out how much of a failure you are, or how terrible your response to a crisis is—they simply want to understand three things:

1. Whether or not you are capable of objectively, clearly perceiving yourself and others

2. Whether you are capable of learning from your mistakes, and

3. Whether you are bold enough to face your problems and inadequacies

You should avoid saying too much in answer to this question. Don’t be verbose. Simply state the facts relating to the incident and use these as the basis for a concise, organised analysis. What are the objective facts of the situation? What are the most important personal inadequacies that the incident brings to light? What parts of the incident could have been handled better? If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Failure is not scary in and of itself. What is scary is not taking the time to learn from our mistakes—to understand why and how they happened. What is even scarier is not accepting responsibility for our mistakes and instead blaming them on the situation.

Therefore, so long as we are capable of learning lessons—of judging ourselves objectively and fairly —our so-called “failures” will serve as the foundation to our future successes. With this kind of constructive attitude towards our past mistakes, answering this infamous interview question will be a cinch. 

Alan Li's picture
Alan Li
Operations Director, Greater China