Many of you will recognize the fantastic Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones. The character is noted for an unlikely friendship with the Amazonian heroine Brienne of Tarth, formed while in captivity; a taboo-even-in-Quasi-Medieval-Fantasy romance with his twin sister Queen Cersei, with whom he secretly sired the malevolent boy king Joffrey; and ending the climbing career of a sweet little boy named Bran Stark by pushing him to paralysis from a tower window, an act for which karma later punished him with the loss of his swashbuckling hand.
Sir Jaime’s experiences in the Game of Thrones universe could easily be used to illustrate a few lessons in discussing our failures and weaknesses, whether we’re prompted into such discussions by job interviewers or essay questions on applications. However, if a somewhat-mortifying, somewhat-empowering conversation we had in front of 1,500 people this past Tuesday is any indication, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau may be an even better tool than his most famous character in illustrating a few more of those lessons.
This is what happened: At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of his Danish movie star vehicle A Second Chance, Nikolaj participated in a live Q&A along with the film’s Oscar-winning director, Susanne Bier, and its TIFF programmer, Steve Gravestock. Sitting in the front row of the Elgin Theatre’s VISA Screen Room orchestra section, in the immediate eye lines of the star, director and programmer, I was the first audience member invited to ask a question – which was inspired by the film’s implication that the beautiful and affluent are entitled to better treatment by the justice system than poor people who live in squalor. “I’m a little uncertain about the ending of the film,” I said. “What exactly would the ‘suspended sentence’ Nikolaj’s character received for assault, kidnapping and attempting to frame the poor couple for murder entail? Are we to assume that he’s working in the hardware shop on prisoner work release, or was the only consequence of his crimes that he lost his job as a police officer?” On his microphone, Gravestock recapped my question with a smirk and an eye roll: “He wants to know if Nikolaj’s character is still a cop.” The audience of 1,500 (imagine the number of people who went down with the Titanic) erupted in laughter and discernible murmurs – “Oh my god, is he serious?” “That is such a stupid question.” “Was he watching the movie at all?” Flabbergasted, Bier took the microphone from Gravestock and craned forward at me as she spoke into it: “Of course he’s not a cop anymore! What is there to be uncertain about? Did you see the film?” I attempted to clarify my question, but the audience only laughed more, and Nikolaj egged them on as he took over on the microphone: “Yeah – HE GOT FIRED.” “Well, I was just a little confused by…,” I started. Nikolaj then craned forward and looked into my eyes: “HE LOST HIS JOB! HE’S NOT A COP ANYMORE! Are you still confused?” (Insert here the sounds of 1,500 people laughing, chattering, boo’ing me and cheering Nikolaj, and me sighing in surrender) “Maybe we should all thank him for his question,” Nikolaj quipped. “The theatre could use some comic relief after that film.” (More jeering and snickering, more blushing and sinking)
At the end of the Q&A, several audience members swarmed to the stage for Nikolaj’s signature, and I started to join them with the intent of clarifying my question once and for all. Nikolaj frowned and buckled up, as if he thought he was about to become the Selena to my Yolanda, so I decided to leave for dinner right away instead. Outside the theatre, I E-mailed Gravestock a clarification of the so-called “stupid question.” He replied immediately from his Blackberry: “Sorry about that. I think they thought you were just referring to whether he was still a cop. Frankly, it was incredibly difficult to hear anything in that theatre. They probably misconstrued it and didn’t hear any of the nuances. The tight timeline and the audience members complaining loudly about not having simultaneous translation didn’t help either. (It made it nearly impossible for us to hear the questions past the first couple words.)” I wrote back: “No major worries! For cultural bridging purposes, I would love if someone were to clarify the question to the director and star. I think U.S. audiences will also have questions about the ending.”
Later that night, I was perusing my Facebook newsfeed when I discovered that my supposed question to Bier and Nikolaj was being ridiculed by screening attendees apparently more loathed to get over it than me. Into the next night, I explained the American and Danish concept of prisoner work release enough times to popularize the acronym PWR. Then, since I’ve long been in the habit of reconsidering my experiences in professional terms, I wondered aloud – Was it appropriate for me to try clarifying the question to everyone who admittedly misunderstood it? Did I sound crazy and oversensitive as I recapped the theatre episode to friends and family? What does my experience with “Jaime Lannister” say about how you can discuss your failures and weaknesses in ways that make people want to hire you, be friends with you and admit you to competitive programs? Since many of you will have to discuss your failures and weaknesses on job interviews, in personal relationships or in applications to colleges and graduate programs, I believe one win from that Q&A is inspiration for these twelve insights into speaking positively about your failures and weaknesses:
- Be clear about scale in stories of your failures to avoid sounding like you just have a thin skin. If I had just reported that I’d had the exchange “following a screening of a Danish film,” readers might picture me arguing pettily with three people in a tiny village theatre outside Copenhagen and assume that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. The visual of me beneath a spotlight at the largest film festival in the world, being lampooned by film executives, the press, the public, Oscar winners and international film & television stars, hopefully helps to explain why I made the extra effort to clarify the question!
- Don’t try to present what’s obviously a strength as a weakness or what’s obviously a success as a failure. It’s too often true that when you answer employers’ and admissions committees’ questions about your failures and weaknesses, you give them information that they can use to claim either that you’re unable to acknowledge your true weaknesses, or that your stated failures demonstrate that you’re also likely to fail as their employee or student. However, you may not be as good of a liar as you think, so just don’t lie! The best course of action is to brainstorm, categorize and reflect upon your failures and weaknesses so that when you’re asked about them, you can confidently present the right ones to the right people. If nothing else, I know that public humiliation by a Game of Thrones star is one that many people would at least be able to visualize and understand as the result of a communication failure.
- Most people in a position to help you will find pity parties repellant, so when you’re telling a story about a time you didn’t succeed, it’s best to demonstrate an understanding in the story’s beginning about the motives of those who prevailed. Maybe my voice didn’t carry well from floor to stage so that Gravestock could clearly hear the question? Could Bier have been in the habit of dismissing “stupid questions” due to the heat she’s been taking for Serena, her Depression-era epic starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that has been languishing in distribution hell since 2012? Was Nikolaj trying to laugh with me rather than at me along with hundreds of tons of people? Whatever the explanation, a compelling one wouldn’t be that the talent on stage was evil while I was just a good guy with a good question.
- Think twice about whether the story will appeal to your target audience. If you’re trying to get hired as an associate at a big law firm, will the lawyers interviewing you be alienated by the story of your tense interaction with a Game of Thrones star? Not if they watch the show, as many lawyers do, and not if they’re litigation attorneys likely to appreciate conflict in a theatrical space. Will the administration of a Doha school that always begins its fall semester in early September be as moved? Probably not. I suspect they’d wonder if you’d always try to miss the first week of classes in favor of attending TIFF, which always begins in early September.
- Consider choosing a weakness that you’ve had for a long time or a failure from some years back so that you can show growth or otherwise talk about how you’ve addressed it. This is clearly a problem for my TIFF story for a general audience; since it transpired just over the last week, I’d have to interpret it relative to similar past experiences (my less embarrassing 2012 face time with Spike Lee?) or explain how I’ve grown to date from it. The experiences of Bran Stark, the boy Nikolaj’s GoT character pushed from a tower, provide better examples. Initially, Bran could only bemoan the fact that he’d likely never be able to climb or walk again, but through his lengthy period of repose, he discovered that he had even greater gifts than his athleticism – namely that he was a Warg with the ability to enter the minds of animals and that he possessed greensight, prophetic visions that come in dreams. In other words, his experiences over a long period of time demonstrate that after the loss of a physical talent that had absorbed his energy, he finally found the time to hone his cerebral talents – which were much more marketable than climbing aptitude.
- Take responsibility. If you’re asked to discuss your failures and weaknesses, avoid the common approach of discussing other people’s failures and weaknesses instead (i.e., “I have a low tolerance for people who commit to meetings and don’t feel compelled to explain themselves when they flake out” or “I struggle to deal with people who don’t respond respectfully to harmless inquiries”). The people interviewing you or reading your application might count among their weaknesses the ones you attribute to people you find difficult, so it’s best not to risk pitting yourself against them. Doesn’t this sound better anyway?: “Sometimes my questions can be more challenging than ones people are prepared to answer immediately, so I occasionally have to deal with lag time between when I make an inquiry and when I get an appropriate response.”
- Know that in assessing your everyday life, just as in making films and television programs, you often have a choice of genre. I would wager that when most people talk about their failures, they feel compelled to present them as horror stories like this one: “I asked a simple question about a film, and I was mercilessly teased and ripped apart for it by hundreds of tons of people. The animosity toward me in that theatre was so palpable that I almost needed security to escort me back to my accommodations for my own safety. I went to bed humiliated, miserable and reluctant to attend any more TIFF screenings.” Here’s how the same experience sounds as a comedy with dramatic elements, one that should leave audiences empathizing at least a little with all of the characters: “I tried to take an actor and director to task for their film’s awkward class politics with a labyrinthine question, but they got lost in the labyrinth and decided that the way out was my public excoriation. While they flashed their multimillion dollar smiles at adoring, autograph-seeking fans afterward, I began plotting my redemption in their eyes and the eyes of over a thousand other people who had probably forgotten about me by then, if they wouldn’t by the next morning. After clarifying my question to the sympathetic programmer, and a Canadian woman in her fifties who was simultaneously making fun of me on Facebook and attempting to get Susanne Bier to hire her as a PA, I went to bed and woke up the next morning to attend another movie premiere. Its director spotted me in a deliberately inconspicuous seat in the audience and said on his microphone to the approval of over 1,200 people: ‘Are you a Millennial? You look great.’”
- Complete your failure story’s cast. Have you been omitting key figures in your story in an effort to simplify it? Maybe there are more people on your side than the me vs. them version you’ve been relaying suggests, and maybe they can help you to understand yourself and the other people in your story? Several days after the TIFF premiere of A Second Chance, I told my friend Veronica the story over dinner and drinks in downtown Toronto. Although she was mortified on my behalf, she commented: “I’m surprised that Nikolaj would make fun of you in front of everyone. He seems like such a nice guy.” Her comment reminded me that when I first encountered Nikolaj in person three years ago, he was just a regular moviegoer in a t-shirt and jeans at a screening of an independent Danish film. After the screening, there was little fanfare for anyone involved in the production, so I watched the director, producer, male leads and Nikolaj bromantically give each other piggyback rides, throw playful punches at one another and slide down the escalator together as they exited the theatre. Observing them, I thought: “I never see Americans so happy after a lukewarm reception to their work, or so unabashedly fraternal with one another. Now I think I want to go to Scandinavia for my next big trip!” The following spring, I went to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where I met Veronica – who has been one of my most reliable friends over the subsequent years. In other words, Nikolaj may have been trying to embarrass me this time one week ago, but this time three years ago, he helped to set in motion a chain of events that dramatically changed my life for the better.
- Reconsider the story’s length. Does it end too early? (Inadequate: “I asked a question and was ridiculed for it. This was a communication failure that I will never forget.”) Does it begin too late? (This doesn’t work either: “One time I wasn’t successful was when I tried explaining to a Canadian woman on Facebook that a question she’d described as ‘dumb’ was not the question I’d asked at all. She ignored me. Some other time, I’ll tell you the circumstances under which I posed the question.”) Does it leave out too much plot in the middle? (These details might be helpful: “People were baffled by my question during the Q&A, but later that night, some audience members for whom I clarified the question called it a ‘great’ one. The next morning, director Susanne Bier also issued a thank you statement to Q&A participants for coming out to support her; her language echoed language in my Facebook post clarifying the question, and in that manner, she finally acknowledged my actual question.”)
- Wait to tell the story. Share it with close but honest friends first. Let them be your test audience. If they agree that the story is worth telling, then gradually tell it to more people as though it’s a film making the rounds on a festival circuit. Once the story has won or proven competitive for the everyday version of the TIFF People’s Choice Award, make any frequently suggested edits, tell it to the right audiences, and tag it to kingdom come. (GoT pun unabashedly intended.) If you present stories of your failures and weaknesses with the care that producers approach the distribution of their films, you stand a good chance of a favorable return on your investment in them in the form of a job, an admissions letter or an improved relationship.
What are some other tips for talking or writing about your failures and weaknesses? Will you ever look at Game of Thrones and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau again the same way you did before reading this post? Let me know in the Comments section or by E-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founder of The Precocious Urchin Co.