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Mistakes and failures are an inevitable part of any well-lived life, and they’re essential to a meaningful and independent adulthood. But we live with an odd cultural contradiction: In order to navigate the seas of adult responsibility and live through any kind of meaningful experience, we must make mistakes and endure failures. But we’re also taught to avoid these things at all costs, even if it means inaction and refusing to take risks.

So, what to do? How can we attain the valuable lessons that come from reaching, trying, failing and recovering, while also preparing to face an imaginary interviewer who—we assume—might give us a negative assessment if we’ve ever made a mistake?

The answer is easy: That interviewer doesn’t exist. Not for a legitimate company, anyway. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of scorn because you’ve faced obstacles in the past, walk away from that job. Your mistakes and stumbles are treasures. And win or lose, each one left you with hard-earned and valuable lessons. Don’t hide these things from employers; show them off! Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Your lessons are your own.

If you put your heart into a project and it didn’t work out, you probably ended up back on the sidewalk at the end of the adventure with nothing to show for it—except what you learned. But as it happens, nobody will write that lesson down and hand it to you. You’ll have to examine the experience and make sense of it on your own. Extract the value you gained and place it in your own words. When you’re asked about the experience, reflect carefully and speak from the heart; don’t just recite the “lessons” or platitudes you think your interviewer wants to hear.

What would you change if you faced the same challenge again?

If you were fired, rejected, criticized, sent away, shut down or worse, and you’d rather not live through the same outcome again, what would you do differently in the face of the same challenge? It’s okay if the answer is “nothing.” If you felt the entire experience was worth the pain, and you stand by your decisions, that’s fine. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from an adventure you would be willing to live through a second (or third) time.

How would you advise someone else?

How would you explain the episode to a younger person on the cusp of the same decisions and circumstances? Would you support them if they choose the same path you chose? If not, why not? Get ready to work this into your discussion with your potential employer.

For more on how to ace your interview by extracting victory from your setbacks and failures, turn to the Milwaukee career management team at Extension.

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