Many EAs seek to switch careers (e.g. from working in finance to working at an EA-aligned research institute), but career changes can be challenging and feel overwhelming. It can be especially tough for mid-career professionals (see “We need 40,000h or maybe even 20,000h”).

For inspiration on successful mid-career transitions, I suggest looking to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Ina Garten, the “barefoot contessa.” Their career transitions are not EA-related,[1] but they are two of the most extreme (and successful) radical career changes I know of. 

 

Skunk Baxter: From Guitarist to Missile Defense Expert

Jeff Baxter was an accomplished guitarist, a founding member of Steely Dan, member of the Doobie Brothers, who played and toured with some of the biggest legends of 20th century music.[2] Baxter was interested in the technology behind his music – the hardware and software that made modern recording equipment work. He also had a neighbor who had worked on missile technology. Baxter bought a subscription to Aviation Week, one thing led to another, and Wikipedia puts it well: Baxter “became self-taught in this area, and at one point wrote a five-page paper that proposed converting the ship-based anti-aircraft Aegis missile into a rudimentary missile defense system. He gave the paper to California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and his career as a defense consultant began.”[3]

Baxter then worked for DoD, the Missile Defense Agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and Northrop Grumman, at national labs, and seemingly every part of the U.S. defense establishment. [4] 

He also still plays music, and appears with the Coalition of the Willing, a band of current and former “diplomats who rock” [5] – including now-U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

 

Ina Garten: From Nuclear Policy Advisor to Celebrity Chef

Moving in the opposite direction, there’s Ina Garten. Garten had an MBA from George Washington and initially worked in government, eventually ending up at the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where she oversaw the NRC’s budget.[6] Her husband, Jeffrey Garten, also worked in government, including on Henry Kissinger’s staff. At 30, Garten decided that her government job “​​was intellectually exciting and stimulating but it wasn't me at all.” She saw an ad for a grocery store in the Hamptons, bought it, and quit her job.[7] She turned that store into the Barefoot Contessa brand, books, and eventually her show on the Food Network.[8] 

 

As far as I know, unlike Baxter, Garten has left her old life behind and does not work on nuclear energy budgets in her free time. 

 

 

  1. ^

     At least not directly, though Skunk’s missile defense work has GCR implications.

  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

15

1 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:02 AM
New Comment

I think this post would be better if it went into some more detail on the career transition process, and perhaps mentioned some lessons learned that are applicable to those intentionally aiming for transitions.

Of these two, I find Baxter more interesting and relevant to EA. Baxter:

- Didn't intend to move into this field at all at first. (This is bad news for EA people trying to manufacture a career change, but still interesting, and may cause people to update in favor of doing relatively casual research into a field, rather than thinking "Oh, a few hours a week will never get me anywhere".)
- Performed self-study. (I'd love to hear more about this. The article mentions he bought a subscription to a magazine or journal, then something something, then wrote a paper. What was the something something? Was Aviation Weekly  really sufficient for this? Did it involve a lot of talks with this neighbor of his?)
- Created a useful deliverable in the field. (Actionable!)
- Got the deliverable in the hands of someone influential in the field. (Also actionable - moreso for EA's than most people, since the EA community is small and happy to connect people. If you have a decent AI paper and want to get it in the hands of a particular org, you can probably do that without much trouble)

Ina Garten, on the other hand, is simultaneously less reproducible (due to the high initial expense and commitment of her transition) and misses out on the more interesting part of her transition. You talk about how she bought a grocery store, then ???, then celebrity chef. I think "Nuclear policy advisor to grocery store owner" is actually less of a move than "Grocery store owner to celebrity chef". Even though the latter two appear intuitively closer (both deal with food), a sufficiently-rich person can just buy a grocery store like Ina did, but how do you go from that to a celebrity chef? How did Ina build her brand up? Was this Ina's goal from the start, or did she approach it incrementally?

There's definitely the seeds of a great article here, but it feels more like an article proposal/draft than a fully-fledged article. It leaves some of the most interesting/applicable parts out of the story. I understand this is more meant to be inspirational than a how-to manual, and that it is a LOT easier to summarise public research than to dive as deeply into the topic as would be needed to answer the questions I had. So, I understand if you'd rather leave it here, but if you wanted to put more time into this idea I think it would bear fruit in the above ways.