How Chelsea Francis Learned to Reframe Failure

Optimism correspondent Doyin Oyeniyi and photographer Chelsea Francis share a conversation about optimism + outlook.

Chelsea Francis, an Austin-based photographer and connector of people, is learning a lot about what it’s like to fall down, dust yourself off, and pick yourself back up. In June 2018, she launched the website Pass/Fail, an online publication that pushes back on the shame people hold around personal and professional failures to reimagine the act of failing as an integral step to success.

Doyin Oyeniyi: I’m curious about the origin of Pass/Fail. How did it come about?

Chelsea Francis: I got really interested in the idea that you can be famous in a field—that someone can be incredibly well-known to a small group of people while at the same time being completely unknown to another. My husband works in the Austin coffee community. There are people we know through his job—some of the most well-known names in the Austin coffee business—who make a huge impact on the industry, but you wouldn’t know them if they walked into a coffee shop.

This notion broadened my idea of what success looks like. In a way, it made it more accessible to me. I started studying what it takes for people to get to the pinnacle of their career, where they’re at their most successful, and the common thread is always failure. It’s how you perceive your failures and how you move past them. When I tried to find a publication online about success and failure and how they sort of intermingle, I didn’t find anything that wasn’t like, “Sheryl Sandberg talks about one time when she didn’t answer an email for two weeks.” It was all micro-failures stacked against huge successes. I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg failed at a ton of things before, but we don’t talk about it. That’s where I wanted to focus.

Chelsea Francis, editor of the website Pass/Fall, is fully committed to the fact that your outlook can change everything.

DO: What do we miss when we don’t talk about failure?

CF: You convince yourself you’re the only person in the world who’s ever failed quite the way you have, and that’s not true at all. More than likely, someone, somewhere has failed exactly the way you have; someone has gotten fired from a job they really liked; or someone has knowingly screwed something up just because they got apathetic. Feeling like you’re the only one who’s ever gone through that makes you feel bad, which in turn makes you not learn from the process and sets you up to repeat it. What I’m trying to do with Pass/Fail is make a safe space for people to talk about failures in a way that doesn’t just say, ‘It’s OK,’ but instead says, ‘This is part of the reason that I was able to succeed at this other thing.’ A lot of times failing at something literally sets you up to succeed in different ways. It was really important to me to make Pass/Fail a space to talk about failure in those terms.

DO: What have you learned about mindset that drives you forward in your endeavors?

CF: A big lesson I’ve learned in my work, in therapy, and with Pass/Fail is that in friendships and in business relationships, people don’t do things to hurt you. You have the power to interpret what people say and do to understand that it wasn’t personal. Does that make sense?

DO: It does. It’s about understanding intention?

CF: Understanding intention, but also understanding what that person might not even know about their intention. What I’m trying to say is that your outlook can change everything. The lens through which you view things can vastly improve the experience of dealing with client work, launching an online publication about failure, handling friendships, or everyday life.

“Your outlook can change everything.”

DO: Do you think you’d be able to do the work you do if you weren’t as much of an optimist?

CF: I think it would look different. I don’t think I’d be able to write about failure and not internalize everybody’s failure. Because I’m also deeply empathetic, so when I read things about people going through hard things or when a friend tells me about something awful, I feel it as if it was happening to me. It physically hurts. I think life would be harder. I’m very grateful for my optimism in that way.

DO: You’ve only had Pass/Fail since June, but it’s growing very quickly. Did more people share their stories of failure in response to you posting stories of your own?

CF: Definitely. I started out with a bunch of letters. Like a letter to your younger self, or a letter to someone in your shoes, or what you’d tell someone that has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or General Anxiety Disorder. Something really helpful for people to connect with. Now, we’re having conversations about sharing your failure and how not having shame around it can put you on the path you want to be on. Now every piece has a ‘This is what I’ve learned!’ component. It’s much more optimistic.

DO: When I was looking you up, I noticed we have the same shirt. It’s a Chipper Things shirt that says, ‘Making it up as I go.’ Why did you get the shirt? What does that mean to you?

CF: Occasionally I get invited to speak on panels. I always make a point to say, ‘No one knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just as confused as you are. If they [aren’t], they have been at some point. Everyone’s faking it. No one knows what the hell is going on. Maybe they do, but they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the game for the rest of us.’ And I think that’s fine.

Part of what I’m doing with Pass/Fail is demystifying this idea of success—the idea that success is for someone who isn’t me and that this person is some figure on a pedestal because they have succeeded, when in reality, they’re a very normal person who wakes up the same way I do and makes decisions the best way they know how to help them get where they’re going. And that’s it. That’s the only difference between us. There are so many other things in play, but once you get to adulthood and you’re making a life for yourself, there’s nothing that separates you from someone who’s very successful besides working toward understanding the decisions you’re making.

DO: That’s why I gravitated toward the shirt myself, because as you become an adult you realize, ‘Oh, all the adults I looked up to growing up didn’t know what they were doing.’ I wish they’d been more up front about their failures and mistakes. I think it would have been a lot more helpful than to grow up with the idea that, ‘Oh, you’ll just know when you’re 25,’ because that’s not how it is.

CF: Most people who are told that kind of assume it will happen at 25. It doesn’t. There’s nothing that automatically turns you into an adult, so there are a lot of 30-year-olds who act like they’re 18. And there are a lot of people who have the emotional intelligence of an 18-year-old because they haven’t worked on it, they haven’t realized that they don’t have it all figured out—and that’s okay—as long as you’re moving toward figuring it out for yourself. That’s why I got the shirt, because I truly am making it up as I go.

DO: Yeah, same. Because we all are.

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