This week’s practice is part three of a four-part year-end series that focuses on doing the work to set ourselves up for success in the year to come. Two weeks ago, I explored the idea of values, discovering and naming those core ideas and beliefs that form the basis of our motivation and desires. Last week, I looked at the Ignatian Christian practice of Discernment of Desires, which is a way of examining our desires to discover which we should pursue and which might best be left aside. This week is all about asking deep, probing questions about the year that has been. This week, I conducted an Annual Review as a sacred practice.
Most of us are familiar with Annual Reviews from work. These are opportunities to examine our successes and areas of growth over the past year, as well as those areas needing improvement and where we’d like to grow our role in the year ahead. When done well (and this is an important condition), Annual Reviews can provide the chance not only to argue for a raise or address areas of concern, but can be a stimulus for genuine growth. It’s no surprise then that this idea has started to take off and be applied to our whole life. This is, predictably, particularly true in the entrepreneurial (see for example Chris Guillebeau’s annual review process) and coaching (e.g., this annual review process from Sid Savara) worlds.
At its most basic, an Annual Review has two questions: “What did I do?” and “How did it go?” The goal isn’t to dwell in the past, but to use the past as a springboard to the future. For this to work, complete honesty is required. There’s no use in undertaking such an exercise if we’re undermining our successes or ignoring our challenges.
As I as contemplating how I wanted to go about my own Annual Review this year, and particularly how I might approach it as a person of faith, I was struck at the similarity between Annual Reviews and the Examen of St Ignatius (a practice I explored here back in February). Both set out to explore the recent past honestly, but with a future-oriented lens. Both ask probing questions that should make us a little uncomfortable. Both highlight attitudes and behaviours that can be adjusted to assist in improving performance (whether in terms of meeting work goals or in terms of living a life that is integrated and aligned with our values and deepest desires). In February’s post, I wrote:
The Examen is a prayerful reflection on the events and experiences of the past day, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. These emerged from his efforts to build a stronger relationship with God and discern God’s will in his life. …The point is less about keeping track of the good and the bad in our day than it is a way of discovering the ways God is moving us and moving in us through our life, and being mindful of the ways we might be pushing or pulling back from God.
This seemed exactly what I would be looking for in an Annual Review. And so, for the sake of this exercise, I adapted the Examen for use as an annual review.
What is it?
There are many ways to do an Annual Review. Feel free to follow the methods developed by Guillebeau and Savara that I linked to above. For my review, I adapted the Examen of St Ignatius of Loyola for use as an Annual Review. If you’d like to follow this format, I have developed this into an Annual Review Template, which can also be found in the Resources section of this site.
This was the first time I sat down to do a formal review of my year. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, particularly since it’s been a bit of a complicated year. I performed the review slowly, over the course of three days. I was surprised at the results. I’m generally a pretty introspective person and so I didn’t expect to uncover much that was unexpected; and while that was indeed the case, what was unexpected was the depth of emotion the process brought up. While I didn’t necessarily have more data about my year after my review, my perspective on it was quite different.
An old belief and intuition of mine that has been strongly reinforced this past year is that there is no such thing as “my spiritual life.” Another way of stating the same truth is that everything is my spiritual life. It’s a bit funny because one of my roles at work is the break down the silos that exist between different units and departments in my organization, and I feel increasingly that this is true for life itself. To live a full and integrated life is to break down the walls and compartments we build up between different parts of our life and simply just live, fully and honesty. There is no area of life that isn’t spiritual, and no spiritual truth that doesn’t impact every area of life. And so, this practice — and this year-end series as a whole — connects deeply with my core beliefs about life: examining the whole of my life and what I care about through the lens of faith and gathering up all the loose bits, so to speak.
There were some difficult truths to face in the process, but also a lot of wonderful truths: real successes, genuine growth, and breathtaking beauty. 2017 was a challenging year for me that involved a lot of heart-rending discernment. While I had wanted 2018 to be a year of jumping into what comes next, what I got was a year of quiet recovery — which is probably the year that I needed. That doesn’t mean that it was a passive year; I set challenging goals for myself and met most of them. In addition, I visited family and friends. I spent time on the sacred ground that is Vancouver Island; I enjoyed being in Toronto; I experienced Paris for the first time and became reacquainted with London. I found ways of improving my diet and physical activity that work for me and have proven to be sustainable (and as a result I’ve lost a fair bit of the thirty-something-thirty I’ve been carrying around). I explored four-dozen sacred practices here in this forum. All this is great. It was a ‘successful’ year in those terms. But more important were the through-lines that emerged in my Annual Review: a sense of putting the past to bed, of gathering strength, and even of renewed hope starting to bubble up beneath the surface. And for that, I can only give thanks.
There are many ways to do an Annual Review and most of this stuff would probably have come up in most of them. But what I liked about treating the Review as a sacred practice is that it ensured those silos and walls between ‘parts’ of my life were torn down. It encouraged me to view my work as sacred, my relationships as sacred, and my whole life as sacred — rooted in God and therefore as a potential place where God can move within me.