Sam Polk shocked Wall Street in 2014 when he wrote an editorial titled “For the Love of Money” and published it in the New York Times. In it, he detailed how childhood aggressions and his high-powered job trading hedge funds in Manhattan had crossed his emotional wires between the need for money and happiness. “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million—and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough,” he wrote. “I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
Now the ex-trader has told his whole story in a new memoir that details his many epiphanies: becoming sober, leaving Wall Street behind, becoming a husband and a father, and trying to make a positive contribution to the world. This is no Gordon Gecko or Jordan Belfort-style celebration of Wall Street excess, although there’s plenty of those sordid tales here, too. But at its core, For the Love of Money is a redemption song.
“I wrote the editorial for the same reasons that I wrote the book,” Polk explains. “when I was young, I had this overriding obsession with money and success. My Dad was this modern-day Willy Loman, this unsuccessful salesman who was always talking about the next big score. I had this suspicion that a lot of people felt this way, but I had never really read about it.”
In the book, Polk explains his belief that “wealth addiction” imperils everyone, not just those who are in thrall of obscene affluence.
“What I think is great about this country is that we have this individualism and free enterprise and manifest destiny side that leads to great progress and great innovation,” Polk says. “But we pair those characteristics with this focus on the good of the whole and democracy and an understanding that we’re all in this together. What happens on Wall Street is that it becomes all about taking for yourself at the expense of other people. If you think about some of the defining characteristics of our culture right now, like global warming or poverty, a lot of that damage comes from people who are doing what’s good for them without considering the consequences.”
Asked what it was like to be working on Wall Street during the near-collapse of the financial markets in 2009, one can almost feel the author shudder.
“It felt like Wall Street was disintegrating,” he says. “It really felt like if Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and Bank of America had gone down, the repercussions for the world economy would have been catastrophic. There was a day I went down to the bank to withdraw $7,000 in cash. Not only were we talking about me being out of a job but it felt like the entire world economy was going to shut down. It felt like the end of the world.”
Today, Polk lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, far from the mad crowds of New York City.
“Becoming a dad changed me more than anything,” Polk says. “One of the reasons I left Wall Street was realizing, basically, that we all belong to each other. Having a kid reinforced the sense that it is my job, more than anything else, to take care of my kid. One of my mentors is Tavis Smiley, who said, ‘Justice is wanting for everyone else’s kids what you want for your own.’ ”
To that end, Polk launched a nonprofit organization, Groceryships, which works to improve long-term health and wellness in low-income communities. Fundamentally, a Groceryship is a scholarship for groceries, augmented by a comprehensive program of nutrition education and emotional support.
“After I left Wall Street, I came to understand that this city where I grew up, Los Angeles, has so many neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores and no produce for sale,” Polk explains. “It just seemed to me that it was nearly impossible for people to stay healthy here. We’re grappling with this reality that there are two economies in this country that rarely overlap. It seems to me that we cannot become a successful nation until we figure out how to make opportunity and quality of life equally consistent between these two worlds.”
Sam Polk still has ambitions. At the end of this month, the newly minted entrepreneur will launch everytable.com, a new startup social enterprise with an innovative business model to sell healthy meals that are affordable for everyone.
“I’m more excited about this project than anything else in the world,” Polk affirms.
It’s a long way from first-class flights and champagne rooms, but Polk is working his way through his rather unusual transition.
“For me, it’s been a process of accepting that, like it or not, that ambition is a part of me,” Polk says. “I’ve come to understand that I have these aspirations to help people and do good in the world, but I also still have this part of me that is ambitious and still wants to make money and still likes really nice things. I loved certain things about Wall Street. I loved how competitive it was. I loved the analysis and I loved the excitement. But at the end of the day, I was completely unfulfilled. Now I feel like I’ve found a path where I can use the analysis and intellect I employed on Wall Street, but combine those strengths with a deep desire to help people that need help. When I combine those two things, I feel like I’m harnessing my full potential as a human being in a way that I never could before.”Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based near San Francisco, California.