I’m about to ask you to do something hard, but before I do, I want to tell you a little story.
Last month, I wrapped up the autumn class I teach each year called “Illustration Projects.” The title is vague, I know, but that’s intentional, because the content of the class changes each year.
It’s a class where 4th-year students design their own independent projects customized to help them take the next step towards the careers they envision. They plan out their own tasks and milestones, and then they execute on their plan.
Or, they try.
Because one of the most important outcomes of this class is failure.
Specifically, the failure to hit the exact milestones and goals the students set themselves (while in a supportive, compassionate setting, where they can learn to absorb that blow, pivot, and keep moving).
Why is this so important?
Because this kind of “failure” happens—repeatedly—in virtually all creative endeavors.
Although my students have made wonderful projects, and many of those projects have come to full fruition—eventually—I can’t think of a single student in six years of teaching this class who hit 100% of their milestones. And that means every single student has had to deal with some level of disappointment in themself, and figure out how not to let that stop them.
That’s using self-compassion to develop the kind of resilience you need to do this demanding work.
Failure isn’t fun. But often it isn’t even failure. It’s just a step in a different direction than you expected.
And with that idea as a backdrop, I want to suggest that you set aside a few hours over the next week or so and do an Annual Review.
Why? Because the best pedagogical research out there shows that the key step in fully incorporating knowledge and experience into your life is reflection. Even if things didn’t exactly go to plan this year, learning from what happened, consciously deciding what you want to do with that information and how it might inform your next steps, and practicing letting judgment go, is immensely valuable if you don’t want to end up reinventing the wheel.
I know it can be emotional!
That’s why this exercise employs a strong filter of self-compassion, and asks for an open curiosity about whether what you saw as a weakness or a failure might not rather be information you can use or even an open door to step through.
Your Annual Review
If you’re new to the review process, your review is sure to be a bit shaggy to begin with.
Don’t worry about it.
Do what you can, and your clarity on what you’re reviewing, and why, will increase with each time you go through this process.
- Calendars for the last year (Especially if you haven’t done weekly reviews).
- Any journals, notes, or project logs that cover the last year.
- If you really don’t have anything as far as notes, you can even review your email.
- A journal or online note-taking tool. I use a digital note-taking tool for this, so that I have access to all my reviews in one spot.
- The photos on your phone. You’re more likely to capture happy moments there than in any journaling tool!
Read over any weekly review notes, review your calendar, and also any journal or other notes you might have kept.
Highlight takeaways and add notes about what becomes clear to you with the benefit of hindsight.
Some things to look for as you do your Annual Review:
- What you’ve accomplished
- What you intended to do and didn’t (can you see why?)
- Mood tracking
- Recurring problems week after week.
- What were your priorities or goals a year ago? What are they now? How have they changed?
Watch for the ripple effect: Observe how your past actions affect your present choices.
Annual review and vision prompts
What worked for me over the last year?
- What did I love about my life last year?
- What did I finish?
- What did I feel good about?
- Where did my processes support me?
- What surprised me?
- Who has been significant in my life over the last year?
- What are the top three things I learned?
- What and who am I grateful for?
What didn’t work over the last year?
- Describe something that has been a struggle or challenge.
- What processes failed me?
- What did I set out to do and not finish?
What will I change about how I approach the next year?
- What kind or scale of goals are going to be motivating and also achievable?
- What can I do to alter HOW I work to better support my success and address challenges?
What is my vision for the next year?
- What feels like the biggest challenge I’m facing right now?
- Are there certain days/weeks/periods that are likely to present an extra challenge?
- What will I do less of?
- What will I do more of?
- What are the primary projects I want to work on next year?
- What do I need to do NEXT?
Once you do your review, and set a vision for your year, there’s one more valuable step to this process.
Write a letter to yourself, one year from now, sharing what you’ve learned and what you’re looking forward to.
Important: Offer your future self grace and compassion when they get this letter and realize they forgot a lot of what was in it, and things didn’t turn out exactly as expected.
Seal it up and date it, then put it somewhere you’ll find it a year later when you do next year’s review. Hand-crafted paper letters are lovely, but you don’t have to be fancy: I do this with a digital note buried in a folder where I’ll never run across it with a dated reminder that will pop up in my notifications.
I’d love to hear what comes out of this review for you! I’ll be doing my own right alongside you.