From stable to pivot table: 6 unexpected ways RDA has made me better at my office job

The "other office" (photo taken in February 2020)

Like thousands of other people involved in RDA, I have a "day job". I work for one of the colleges of Oxford University on outreach, access, and schools liaison. My job involves many things, but its biggest point is to give advice, guidance and encouragement to young people of various ages, focusing on what a "highly selective" university might be able to offer them and empowering them to aim high. The role exists to help make the university more diverse and welcoming, and can take the shape of hosting a school visit, strategising for the future, running a university open day, or (this year, certainly) making endless informative videos. 

Some things about work are miles away from RDA. Some things, however, actually cross over quite neatly. I was doing some thinking at my desk (currently my dining table) about the relationship between the two this week, and realised how useful my experiences with my RDA group have been in making me decent at my day job; not least because I've been doing RDA for several years more than I have been in my current post. These are the ones I thought were the most important: do you recognise them in your own job?

Communication stations

For me, RDA and work both have communication at their hearts. It would be impossible to do either well with a one-size-fits all way of communicating with others, especially as both require me to explain things, be encouraging, and occasionally pull off a bit of low-level diplomacy to and with a lot of very different people. Communication can be one of the biggest and most immediate challenges you face in an RDA setting, and as volunteers we are used to finding creative and efficient ways of overcoming that challenge. I know few people who haven't had to adapt the ways they communicate at work over the past year, but even pre-2020 I am glad to have had RDA's ongoing masterclass in communicating well.

Having (and accepting) plans B, C, D and E

I will admit, I'm still not particularly keen on last minute obstacles and changes of plan, but nobody is going to stop encountering them. At work, it isn't unusual to need a plan B: I organise events which involve other people needing to be in particular places at particular times, and have an annual role in the university's interview process, a complicated logistical operation operating with fewer plan As in position than any other type of plan. It would've taken me a lot longer to learn how to deal with the abrupt about turns, spanners in works, and miscellaneous unexpecteds with efficiency and grace if RDA hadn't already taught me that there will always be unforeseen problems to solve, and actually that most of them turn out completely fine in the end. I don't think I'll ever stop liking having everything just so, but at work and at the stables I do find a kind of enjoyment in untangling a tricky scenario.

Patience, patience, patience

My job and RDA both require a person to strike a deft balance between dealing with complicated processes and problems, often at high speeds, and being able to explain what's going on or what needs to be done in far simpler, friendlier terms. Often my RDA families don't have any prior knowledge of horses, just as the young people I work with are first generation university applicants, or the first person in their school to apply to a university like Oxford. It's easy for anyone who knows a lot about a topic, whether it's horses, university applications, or anything else, to forget that the people they meet won't have the same level of understanding they take for granted. I am at my most patient at RDA, and have been able to transfer some of that to my job (my manager would probably be pretty grateful to my group if they realised how much...). Aside from patience in the day-to-day stuff, RDA is also the perfect place to understand the worth of the long game. Bringing any kind of change to an organisation more than 800 years old is a slow process requiring careful planning and collaboration. My RDA group isn't quite so ancient, but it has nurtured plenty of slow-blooming achievements in its own history.

That's me in your corner

My favourite similarity between my job and my voluntary RDA role is how both positions are underpinned by unambiguously good values and intentions. Both are based upon the idea of creating opportunity for those who need, for various reasons, a bit of a boost. As such, both also have some level of focus on the stories and journeys of individual people, and both have taught me the value of championing and advocating for these small-scale causes. As trite as it sounds, I have pursued both things because I wanted to make some sort of a difference to others, and that does mean being prepared to get behind someone or something and fight from their corner. It keeps me motivated to know that I'm doing my bit to change the world, even if it's only starting with individual people, families' and schools' worlds, one riding lesson or taster day at a time.

Stamina training

I recognise and respect the energy required by teachers to keep on top of a class (or multiple classes) for several hours a day. I don't do it every single day, although I know plenty of RDA volunteers who do, but a big slice of my pre-Covid working week would involve a similar level of interaction with an ever-changing cast of young people. There is definite crossover between the stamina I need to do this in multiple contexts throughout a working week and the energy of a morning of RDA coaching. I think the closest part of the crossover is the idea that you are speaking, or teaching, to encourage and empower someone else, so it's much harder to do without enthusiasm! I am only speaking to school groups via the magic of Microsoft Teams and Zoom at the moment, so when regular service is resumed I will be relying on the stamina gleaned from being back at RDA to power me through my weekday diary. Especially the earlier-than-early mornings on the train to a school...

Measure for measure

The work I do at the stables and in the office (or at least, plan in the office) definitely packs a punch, but measuring the force of that punch (or as it's officially termed, impact) isn't always a straightforward process. In some ways, my job and its more established approach to impact data has helped to inform the way I think about measuring the good that RDA does, but RDA reminds me to stay focused on the people and feelings behind any dataset. If impact is difficult to pin down and measure up, motivation and commitment is near impossible. Being stuck into whatever my RDA group has to offer constantly provides its own justification for the time and effort I put in (around my day job) in the way it makes me feel. It might be the hardest thing to measure, but nothing hits as hard when it isn't backed up by genuine, from-the-heart feelings. If I can keep that kind of investment in present or future jobs, I know I'll be in the right place.

Do you have a "day job" outside of RDA and horses? I would love to know some of the unexpected ways RDA has made you better at doing your job, or how your job has prepared you for being an RDA volunteer.