Looking Forward by Looking Back

It’s a new year! New quarter! It’s time to start setting goals for yourself so that you can get clear on where you’re going over the next quarter, year, even several years at work. Yay! But, wait. While setting goals is an important way to ensure that you will actually accomplish the things you want to do, the best goals that you can set for yourself are based on what you’ve successfully accomplished before. Owning and embracing your accomplishments can not only teach you more about how you operate at your best, but can help you get closure on the previous year so that you can build up energy to do more good stuff next year. The best way to get the full picture about what you’ve accomplished is to do a performance review or annual review for yourself.

Performance review? Annual review? I know, I know. You’d rather get a route canal. You’d rather walk on burning coals. I get it. Performance reviews, year-end and end-of quarter reviews, post-mortems, retrospectives — whatever you call them them — are often painful, unproductive, and worse yet counterproductive. They illuminate everything that you didn’t get done, everything that you did wrong, every thing that broke, and all the bad stuff cloaked in a shroud of “constructive criticism” and “professional development.” 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is a way to conduct a review that instead of shutting you down, will energize, inspire, and propelled you forward onto your next endeavors: conduct a story review

As a leadership coach who has worked with creatives and non-creatives alike, I can tell you that stories — and story reviews, by extension — connect with you and energize you in a way that standard evaluations never will. Why? Whether you realize it or not, when you reflect on your past accomplishments, challenges, or failures, your brain is constructing a story. And because you’re human and constantly needing to survive, by default you often construct horror stories and tragedies so that you don’t repeat your past mistakes. Your brain, after all, doesn’t want you to get out of your comfort zone and would prefer you stay just where you are: not moving forward. 

The problem is that if you’re reading this, you’re someone who wants to move forward. Reviewing your accomplishments as a story — an adventure tale, if you will — will help you make sure that story that your brain constructs about your past and your future (more on that in a future article) is as successful as it can be…so that you can be as successful as can be.

If you want to make real, powerful, and sustainable change at work and in your life, you only need to ask yourself four simple questions:

  1. What did I want to accomplish?

  2. What did I accomplish?

  3. What did I learn?

  4. How will I celebrate?

1. What did you want to accomplish?

What was one big intention or goal you had for last year? Every good story starts out with a hero (that’s you!) who has a big dream, hope, or desire. Sometimes this big goal comes from within and sometimes it is thrust upon a hero by external forces. Either is fine. Whether your goal came from you or your boss, or your board, what was it? Even if the goal isn’t completely work-related, if it affects your work life and feels important to you, write it down.

What did you want to accomplish? You wanted to write a book? Get into public speaking? Expand your professional network? Grow your team? Establish a new practice, business line, or product at your company? Get healthy? Whatever it is, whether you met the goal or not, write it down.

Note: while you can do a story review with more than one goal, I recommend doing one at a time the first time you do this. If your goal is big, feel free to break it up into smaller goals, if need be. Ideally you goal is SMART. If it isn’t, break it down into measurable components that are.

2. What did you accomplish?

What are you most proud of accomplishing? At this point, simply list your accomplishments related to your goal. Don’t editorialize, critique, or analyze. Just list. There will be room for your thoughts in a moment.

What did you accomplish? You gave that new talk that you’ve wanted to give for a while? You got a promotion, bonus, or raise? You landed a project working on something that excited you? Your team launched a new product? Your organization met and exceeded its goals? Maybe you made new work friends? Wrote an article? You go to the gym twice a week? Started sleeping 8 hours a night?

Great! Write it down.

3. What did you learn?

Now is your chance to reflect more deeply on your accomplishments and experiences. What did you learn? Not “what are your strengths?” Or “how can you improve?” I get tense even thinking about those questions, as do all of my clients, as do you. You’re human, after all. And you’re programmed to be alert to threats. This is not an assessment and nothing to fear. It’s your story. Your adventure!

So what did you learn? You learned that it’s hard to wake up at 6 am to go to the gym and that you’re much more likely to go at noon. You learned that the promotion you got that you were so afraid of asking for is the best thing ever. You’re perfect for the job. It’s not been an easy transition, but you’re up for the task. Or maybe you got the promotion and realize that you’d rather pursue something different. Great.

Knowledge is power. Keep going. Write it all out.

4. How will you celebrate?

After you uncovered what you accomplished and what you learned, it’s time to ask yourself the most important question: how will you celebrate? Celebrating is the end to great stories and is also the end to a productive year, quarter, or project.

How do you like to celebrate? A few of my clients likes to celebrate by sharing a bottle of bubbly with their partners or friends. Another, by going out to dinner. My friend, colleague, and fellow coach, Lara Hogan, likes to celebrate with donuts. I like to celebrate with bourbon.

Whatever the answer, write it down and then go do it! Your brain will thank you for it. Celebrating is not only fun, but is important for a couple of reasons. First, celebrating gives you closure. Your brain wants to have closure on a situation and can’t have it without fully experiencing the beginning, middle, and end completely and fully. If you move onto the next shiny thing without getting complete closure on an experience, your brain never gets the chance to settle down, relax, and recharge so that it can better rev up for the next episode or challenge.

Second, what better way to complete an experience and learning loop than with a reward? There is a reason why video games players get fireworks, coins, and points, and children get stars when they finish something: rewards trigger your brain’s reward center, hereby completing a more complete cycle that is the foundation of longer term habit formation. Some habits are bad. Many habits are good. Let’s go build more good habits!

But, but…where are the dragons?

At this point in the story, you might be wondering where the bad things should go. After all, good stories are built on tension and conflict. When you do performance evaluations or post-mortems at work, there are plenty of opportunities to specifically call out the negative. Illustrating what’s broken will help you fix it, right?

I kindly disagree.

There is a school of thought in that believes that if you instead focus on what works, you create opportunities to make more of that happen in the future. Focus on what’s broken and you shut down and don’t want to hear it. You’ll find a million reasons why you can’t fix what’s broken. As I’ve seen with my superhero coaching clients, if you instead focus on key learnings and collecting data while identifying what works, and how it works, you will spark energy to do more of the good stuff in the future. Once you’ve done that, you can make real, sustainable change happen at work and in life.

This is not to say that your story review should be all roses and rainbows. Stories don’t work that way and neither do you. When you list out what you learned, your challenges are inherently baked in, hereby making your story that much stronger. For example, let’s say that you learned something like “I learned that it was easy to develop a gym habit!” there is conflict built in because you probably were wondering if it would be difficult or you wouldn’t bother to list it as a key learning. If you want to make it read like a stronger story, you can always append “I thought it would be difficult, but I learned that it was easy!” 

More realistically, let’s say that you were otherwise disappointed by how your gym journey turned out. “I learned that I really should try to go to the gym more often next year” is not a key learning—that’s a judgement. Did you learn that you’re more likely to go with a friend? In the morning? In the afternoon? You’re not likely to go to the gym at all? If your goal was to get fit, then now you have more data that can inform your strategic direction for next year rather than make you feel bad. 

When a lemon is just a lemon

Much of the time, you can glean key learnings from your experiences so that you can spark insights for how to move forward. 

And sometimes you can’t. Nor should you. Nor do you need to. 

Last year, my sister in law died from cancer. She was 43 years old. She was not ill, then she was, and a few months later she was gone. My brother did not have any other family that could help but me—our mother died from cancer when she was 45, our father when he was 74. We are all we have. I barely held myself together enough to help him and his two young daughters (4 and 7) get through illness, death, and now what comes after. Somewhere in the process, I closed down my successful product development consultancy and built a leadership coaching business. 

What did I learn? Fuck it. 

Seriously. I’m still grieving and will be for a very long time. Maybe in a few years, I’ll have enough distance and perspective so that I can learn something about myself when faced with adversity or whatever. But honestly, fuck it. 

I’m angry. I’m sad. And that’s the story. 

When life hands you lemons, sometimes you just need to look at the lemons. Admire them. Hate them. Do what you need to do. If you can learn something about the lemons and do something with them, great. And if not, you’ve got lemons. And that’s just fine. 

As my 2.5 year old son, Max, likes to say, “Lemon! That’s a lemon.” Yes, Max. It is.

Now what?

Lemons or not, you wanted to do a lot last year. You got lots done. You learned a lot. You know how you’re going to celebrate. 

First…congratulations. I won’t tell you that you did a good job because this has nothing to do with that and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. You did things. You learned a lot. Excellent. Now that you’ve got a complete story of your last year, you’ve started to pave the way for mapping out what will be your story for the next year. 

Throughout this process, you’ve undoubtedly started to build energy, and spark insights that can propel you forward. For example, if you learned that you’re better off going to the gym with a buddy…you’re smart. What does that mean for next year? Try to go to the gym alone more often? It’s hard to turn back or mess things up once you know what the story is.

But for now…go, celebrate. Even if you don’t know what to do with those lemons. You‘ve had quite the year, I’m sure.


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Hi, I'm Donna. I’m a superhero coach, speaker, and author. I help leaders in tech and tech adjacent fields unlock their superpowers so that they can get unstuck, level up, lead more effectively, and make an impact at work and in life.