A Winning Attitude Starts with Past Failures

By PAUL SAMUELS on MAY 13, 2015

Turn Past Failures Into Future Successes

3 past failure quotes

Do winning attitudes really start with failure? Obviously you can’t have an attitude of failure and achieve success. But you can learn from past failures. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb after 1,000 tries. He said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Here are “1,000” steps to avoid a failed interview.

Winning is Everything

“Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophy.” ~ Sumner Redstone

If winning is success, and success is everything, then winning is everything. But getting there can sometimes feel like walking through a minefield, with each mine being a minor setback in the form of a perceived failure. All humans experience failure, but every big win comes from overcoming past failures. Don’t be afraid to learn from them or to share what you have learned with others. And especially don’t be afraid to share your past failures in an interview.

The Forbidden Question

“I never learned a thing from a tournament I won.” ~ Bobby Jones

One concept Edison had was to build things out of cement. He started a company in 1899, The Edison Portland Cement Company. Unfortunately, the idea was not widely accepted because it was so expensive at the time. However, the Yankee Stadium hired his company. The question people failed to ask was, “How can we make concrete more affordable?” The forbidden interview question ranks among those that have the highest value for managers making the hiring decisions:

“When was the last time you failed and how did you overcome it?”

Let’s be honest here. Most of us would give a standard “Ummm… I’ve been able to achieve all my targets and goals so far, I’ve done well.” This is probably the last thing an employer wants to hear. There are two possibilities behind an answer like that:

  1. The candidate has never been challenged.
  2. The candidate never tried hard enough.

Trying hard and being challenged go hand in hand. Turning past failures into successes is a skill you can learn. Learning from your past failures is what will push you to do better. Many famous people from business gurus, scientists, and public figures to athletes and all the artist-types have suffered multiple failures before they reached their successes. They didn’t let failure stop them from becoming successful.

  • Bill Gates witnessed his first company, Traf-O-Data shut down. He claimed it was a complete disaster that paved his successful future.
  • Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper firm because he lacked creativity. He also saw his first company, Laugh-O-Gram, shut down.
  • Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, only to set up another company, NeXT, which was later acquired by Apple.

The Forbidden Answer

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games 26 times – 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.” ~ Michael Jordan

Winning is everything after past failures - earn the medal

The correct answer is actually not forbidden, but the wrong answer is. So when the question, “What have been some of your past failures in life and how did you deal with it?” is asked, how should it be answered? Not with the scaredy-cat version, “I’m already successful. I don’t fail at work.” The correct answer to the forbidden question should showcase your individual failures and what you learned from them. How did you turn them into successes? Showcase your human side, not your super-hero side.

10 Steps to 1,000 Successes

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fall.” ~Confucius

  1. Come up with your own definition of success. Start where you are.
  2. What may be a failure to one person may be considered a success by another. Someone who usually finishes a 5k in under 30 minutes will consider a finish time of 39 minutes a complete failure. Whereas, someone who just accomplished running a mile without walking will be extremely excited about a 5k finish time of 39 minutes. So turn those past failures into future successes.

  3. Admit defeat. Be honest with yourself about what just happened.
  4. Didn’t get enough sleep? Enough water? Didn’t warm up or stretch? Was it an unusually hot day? Figuring out what happened can help you prevent the same mistakes in the future. Edison probably never repeated the same mistake twice in his 1,000 attempts at the light bulb.

  5. Be proactive about what you learned.
  6. According to the Dalai Lama, “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” Be sure to take the next step though. Make a change for next time. Next time, go to bed earlier. Drink a glass of water when you wake up. Take time to stretch. Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately.

  7. Don’t focus on the results. Focus on the process.
  8. The correct process will eventually lead you to the positive results you’re looking for. If you fail at getting the job you want due to an interview gone bad, then practice more. Study the questions. Practice being confident.

    “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy

  9. It isn’t personal.
  10. Every hiring decision has to be what’s best for the company. And if the hiring manager knows you look challenges square in the face and won’t back down despite the occasional knock-down, you might have a better fit. Remember though that the competition is fierce and it’s always about the best fit.

  11. Stay positive.
  12. Confidence radiates. Be honest with facts and back them up. Share about the time you had that job where you forgot to do something important, but then you thought up a new idea which ultimately made the company 5x more money. Or the time you accidentally left the door unlocked, but you found a new hire out of the deal because of her honesty. Those are past failures that might be worth shouting about.

  13. Be SMART.
  14. Set SMART goals. Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Realistic. Time-bound. Focus on one thing at a time and share any instances where you have initially failed, but ultimately achieved the measure of success you set out to do.

  15. Shift your thinking.
  16. Failure is not true defeat. It is merely a delay, a detour. Look for new angles. The only true failure is failing to change. So change your past failures to create your own success.

  17. Take risks.
  18. After investigating what went wrong, don’t blame others. Take risks. Be innovative. Move forward.

  19. Overcome fear and adversity.
  20. Be optimistic. Make a list of your past failures and how you have learned something from them by making changes and improvements. Over time, your fear will melt away and adversity will be welcomed. The next time you are asked, “So, when was the last time you failed?” you’ll be able to answer confidently with multiple examples and nail that interview question once and for all.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” ~ Samuel Beckett

Hiring a candidate who turns past failures into successes is one of the best values that can be added to a company. Encountering failure is always tough, but you can get back up and try again. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become the next failure-to-success story!

The Author

Straight from the desk of

Paul Samuels

Paul Samuels

Executive Vice President

Paul began his career with Kimmel & Associates in 1987 and holds the distinction of being one of the most senior consultants in the company.

Read full bio