Discussion: December 22, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

Usually the Readers’ Forum in the Ask The Headhunter newsletter starts with a problem or scenario posed by a reader. Then we all pile on it, here on the blog.

This week I’d like to pose a problem myself. The current edition of Wired magazine features an article about failure that occurs in science labs. It set me to thinking. (Everything I read flows through my headhunter filter.) How can this be applied to solve job hunting or hiring problems?

A sidebar in that article is titled How to Learn from Failure. It suggests that when scientific experiments fail, the outcome of the effort is an anomaly. Anomalous outcomes should makes us analyze failure in these four steps:

Check Your Assumptions
Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant
Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity
If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness
It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

Can these failure analysis tools be applied to job hunting and hiring? Here are my four suggestions about how to apply these tools to a failed job interview. Rather than think you failed at the interview:

  1. Ask yourself, “Is this the wrong job for me?”
  2. Explain to someone outside your business what the job is about, and what happened in the interview. Ask for their insight.
  3. Do (2.) with someone way outside your field. Ask your grandmother or a 12-year-old. If you’re forced to change the vocabulary you use to describe the failure, you might learn something new.
  4. You might believe that the salient take-away from a failed interview is that you failed at the interview. Is it possible you failed to pursue the right kind of job, company, manager?

I think there’s something here. Help me find it. How can these four failure analysis steps be used to learn from failed job interviews?


  1. This is a long reply, but I have been here multiple times and think there may be a few points worth sharing here. Here’s how I’d use those 4 steps for myself:

    Challenging assumptions – “What did I expect would happen? When did things get off course? Did I expect something to happen to put me back on course?” Those are some of the questions I’d ask myself. Sometimes it can help to write out what one assumes before the interview and then compare the results with the expectations to see if they are realistic or not. Don’t forget that hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is rarely anywhere near that good.

    Engaging other perspectives, which combines the ignorant and diversity points – Sometimes finding those people outside of IT to discuss how an interview went can provide insights into where things went wrong. Trying to explain the situation can provide insights into what you did see compared to what you thought or felt you saw. Maybe the interactions I had weren’t that special and different than other people’s situations and it can help to not feel so alone at times. Sometimes these situations are where someone can recommend a book or picture to help change one’s thinking at times. A couple of examples here would be things like looking at the points in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” or something on how to be mindful or “in the moment.”

    Blindness – This comes from not wanting to look at each part of the puzzle. A challenge here is to think about what do you remember and don’t remember and whether or not a mock interview is done that is video taped so that one can do some analysis on it.

    As an aside, I have had a wide range of interview results. I remember quite well my first interview at Microsoft which went horribly, to put it mildly. With each of the 3 people I met, I was making simple mistakes like not communicating what I’m thinking, having a general game plan of how to tackle a problem at a whiteboard, and a few other little things that in having someone give me some guidance and pointers, I did remarkably better the second time around. Of course I didn’t get the job either time in the end, but I did learn that I can adapt and learn, which can be a terrible thing to forget.

    Lastly, don’t forget we are human and will screw up. We aren’t perfect and sometimes negative thinking patterns will come in these situations where aside from the perfectionism, there is also the self-judgement and self-hatred that can be triggered. Thoughts like “How could I screw up that much?” or “Why did I even try to work there? They’d never want me. I’m a monster,” are some that I’ve had time and time again. While they may be exaggerations, that doesn’t change the intensity of the feelings one has to battle here.

  2. I can say it very important topic. I am always learned with my failure. Most of time its are inspiration for me.