“Leg yield off the wall to the center of the arena, and then switch sides and leg yield back onto the wall. It doesn’t matter whether or not you get there. I just want you to try.”

I hear my trainer’s instructions from my spot in the saddle, sitting on a gruella lesson mare named Violet. I turn down the long side of the arena and begin my leg yield, concentrating on the simultaneous use of my hands, legs, and seat to achieve a desired outcome. My focus is on the leg yield, but the second set of her instructions are sticky, and I find myself repeating her words for the rest of the lesson, then again on my drive home: It doesn’t matter if you get there…just try.

<<<>>>

I started taking riding lessons again. Once a week I drive an hour and a half to a dressage barn to ride horses that aren’t mine.

Me and Mac. Gearing up for a lesson.

I did the math, and I’ve been riding on and off for about 27 years. With the exception of reading, singing, and possibly writing, that makes it my the most long term pastime of my life, but in recent years, especially after my marriage to a man who regularly made it a point to criticize my skill in the saddle, my confidence had plummeted, and I didn’t feel up to restarting or riding my horses on my own. When my bestie and riding buddy, Lauren, moved away from the ranch to take up her next adventure, I made the leap back into lessons, hoping that I could rebuild some of the confidence I had lost.

Once upon a time, you could put me on about any reasonable horse and point me at a jump course (or…insert whatever discipline I happened to be riding here…), and I would take off without hesitation. I would do it because I knew that, in all likelihood, I could do it.

But for years now, I’ve been less sure. I’ve been uncertain, and I’m not good at uncertain.

<<<>>>

It doesn’t matter if you get there…just try.

I’ve been thinking a lot about core values lately. If you haven’t heard the term, your core values are your (five or so) fundamental, guiding beliefs. These are the ideas that move you. If you’re living in alignment with them, you are likely to consider yourself on track or successful. If you aren’t living in alignment with them, you will probably feel like shit about yourself or your decisions.

In the pre-pandemic, before times, I taught my students about core values in my business communication class. I did this because I wanted them to understand their internal ethic when it came to how they wished to do business. (Additionally, I think the discussion itself is a valuable tool in anyone’s toolbox; knowing your core values can, among other things, actually make you less susceptible to advertising.)

Values can fall all over the map of human beliefs. They can be a positive force (kindness as a core value, for example), but many of them are not (popularity or wealth building as a core value comes to mind). Some are more neutral (success, because the term really only means what you believe it to mean for you). Some are evaluated based on the reactions of other people external to yourself (again, popularity comes to mind). These values will likely cause you pain, because you’re not actually in control of whether or not you’re living them out. Others, like love, are judged by your own internal rubric.

Research suggests that you’re better off having values under your control (judged by your rubric, not how you think others perceive you) and values that are growth-minded instead of measured by a singular event. (If success is a core value, don’t define it as having a nice car, because when you have the nice car, there will be no where else for the value to take you. They tend to feel empty when that’s the case.)

(Here’s a list with about 500 examples of possible core values. They’re worth a glance.)

Your actions, feelings, and the way you perceive yourself are guided by your specific set of values. It’s best to understand what they are.

<<<>>>

Here are the questions I’ve been asking myself lately: What’s driving me? Am I driven by values that I actually want to be driven by? How am I measuring my success or failure as a person?

Can I change my values to reflect more of the life I want?

I realized the more I dug down that I am judging myself by core values that I don’t actually believe in. A few of them are cultural–material success, productivity, capitalism–and some are ideas that I grew up with and internalized uncritically as a child. (It occurred to me as I worked through all of this that much of the cognitive dissonance we experience as humans comes from the conflict between your values and the values instilled in you by your family of origin (the values of your childhood).)

Growing up, my mother’s mantra was “Be the best.” She continued, quoting her father, “Be the best. If you’re going to be a ditch digger, then be the best ditch digger, and soon you’ll be in charge of all the other ditch diggers.” Honestly, there are some worthy values buried in there, and for some they might have walked away with values of personal responsibility or hard work, but that’s not how it landed for me.

Instead, I got stuck on “be the best,” which distills down to the core value of “best,” and, for many of us, this is a toxic value. For one thing, it’s based on how you compare to other people, and we know that that is problematic, but also, because I valued myself on whether or not I was “best,” I was, and still am, resistant to trying anything that I don’t already know I’ll be good at.

Here’s a fact: I am not the best at anything.

This is not a disparagement. There are certainly things I’m good at, but there is no category in which I am Simone Biles or Michael Phelps. I am not, and will never be, the best. And I’m learning to be ok with that.

<<<>>>

I made a list.

Here’s are the five values that I want to have guiding my life. (Some are hyphenated, so it’s possible I cheated a bit, but I think they’re different faces of the same idea.)

* Authenticity/Vulnerability
* Compassion
* Creativity
* Fun
* Learning/Self-Knowledge

These are my chosen core values. Some of them I do a pretty good job at living out. Others not so much–I am just terrible at fun to be honest–but knowing what I want them to be helps me to measure my actions accordingly.

Here are a few of the values I find myself living by that I’m working to untangle, recognize, and remove:
* Best
* Materially Successful
* Productive

All of these values fuel my perfectionism, which, ironically, makes me way less productive, successful, or likely to ever be the best. I judge myself by them regularly, even though I don’t believe they should be guiding values in my life.

<<<>>>

Back to the lesson:

I worked on leg yields on and off for the rest of the lesson. None of them were flawless.

Once upon a time I used to tell adults that I wanted to ride in the Olympics someday. I don’t think it was ever true. I didn’t have a burning desire to be the best in the world. I really just wanted to spend time with horses, and I felt as though I had to justify it in a productive way, even then. Even as a child.

I will never be an Olympian. I don’t want to be.

Riding lessons take about 4 and a half hours out of my day for me to sit in the saddle for a half an hour. But you know what? It’s a FUN half an hour! It isn’t productive. I will never, ever be the best, but I am learning a lot of new and interesting ways to fail.

It’s reminding me that trying is it’s own reward, even when I don’t achieve my goal, whatever that goal happens to be.

My instructor is still echoing in my head.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you get there. I just want you to try.”

<<<>>>

Drop a comment if you took a look at the list! What are your core values? Are the values guiding your life the values you want guiding your life?