What is the biggest problem with wealth addiction?
We live in the richest country in the world, and millions of kids don't know where their next meal is coming from. And the thing is, it's not just those kids who are suffering.
When I was on Wall Street, I felt empty. I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn't get filled by money — it gets filled by connection and empathy and love.
I think there are a lot of people atop the economic spectrum who are depressed and unhappy. I think we all need to realize that there's something spiritually broken in our culture, something that can't be fixed by higher GDP or better regulations or even a higher minimum wage (though I'm for that). We need to look at the root causes of all of this, to ask ourselves what we are doing wrong to create a world where nearly every industry makes decisions that benefit themselves financially at the expense of other people. It's not just Wall Street — it's also Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League, and everything in our culture that says some people are more valuable than others.
Why did you decide to relocate to Los Angeles?
You know how, when someone gets sober, they are advised to stay away from "people, places, and things" that remind them of their own life? That's how I felt about New York — being around all that money and ambition was too much for me. Too easy to get jealous, to get swept up in that current of money and power and image that I'd spent years trying to get out of. So I moved to LA, which is in some sense similar, but instead of investment bankers there are writers, and it's also where I'm from.
Do you have any regrets from your time on Wall Street? What was your biggest mistake?
More than anything, I regret not speaking up about how women are treated and talked about on Wall Street. I can't tell you how many times I stood in a circle of traders, listening to them talk about this or that waitress's a--, or what they wanted to do to some girl on the trading floor, and even though I knew that I should say something, I kept quiet.
I'd started to see that spiritual counselor when I was 19 because I'd been dumped by this girl, and the truth was she dumped me because I treated her terribly. Over the years I'd come to understand that I had this undercurrent of misogyny inside me, that I'd picked up from my dad, from all the sports teams I'd played on growing up, from the media and from our culture.
As I started to address that misogyny inside myself, I started to see how prevalent that was on Wall Street …not just the strip clubs and prostitutes, but just how women are talked about in everyday conversation. There is a profound disrespect for women on Wall Street. For most of my time on Wall Street I didn't participate in that, but I also didn't do anything to stop it. You can make huge changes just by using your voice — but I was too scared, and desperate to fit in, to do that.
How did you come up with the idea for Groceryships?
Groceryships (scholarships for groceries) is a nonprofit organization that helps families living in food "deserts" — places where healthy eating habits are sparse — get access to nutrition education, fresh produce, cooking classes, and emotional support groups.
I came to the idea after watching the documentary, "A Place at the Table," which is about hunger in America — how, in the richest country in the world, millions of kids don't know where their next meal is coming from, and how there is this deep correlation between hunger and obesity (kids don't have dinner one night; the next night, they eat McDonalds). Watching that movie, I realized how much of my life had been spent trying to make it to the top — to be important, to matter — and how the consequence of all that striving is that many people are left behind. I wanted to do something of value for the people who'd been left behind.
Also, I've had my own experience with food issues — both my parents were overweight growing up, and I was a super heavy kid who was teased and bullied quite a bit. So I have a place in my heart for kids who are struggling that way, and also a deep understanding of how the consequences of obesity are not just financial and health-related, but also emotional and spiritual.
What is Everytable and how did it come about?
Everytable was an idea born out of our work at Groceryships. Many of the Groceryships moms had several kids and multiple jobs, and we kept hearing that, while they appreciated all of the fresh produce we were bringing to them, they're all busy and often had to buy food on the go — and in South LA, that means unhealthy fast food. We saw this as an opportunity to provide these moms with a new, healthy, affordable alternative to traditional, processed fast food.
As we thought about it more, we realized that access to healthy food at a reasonable price isn't just affecting these communities — it's affecting everyone. That's when we decided make healthy, fresh food affordable to all with Everytable. We started with a low-cost business model that would allow us to sell food at extraordinarily low prices, by using a central kitchen and selling through small, grab-and-go storefronts. Then, we took into consideration the average incomes in the neighborhoods where we'd be opening locations, calculating prices that would be affordable in every community. We're so excited to be creating a community that, together, is democratizing healthy food — and we've created a model that will allow us to continue to grow and serve more communities.
Why did you want to write a memoir?
My overriding experience in my 20s was this deep longing to be wealthy and successful. I suspected I wasn't alone in that feeling, but I hadn't read any books that really explored that desperate ambition — what it looked like, how it felt, where it came from — from a vulnerable and honest place. I wanted to write a book that young, ambitious, sensitive men might pick up, read, and feel a little less alone in the world.
In the movie, "Jerry Maguire," the eponymous protagonist (played by Tom Cruise) writes a memo entitled "The Things We Think and Do Not Say." That's sort of what my book is like — an open and honest exploration of the two themes that are most important in young men's lives — women and money.
How is your life is different now vs. when you were on Wall Street?
I no longer have the comfort of knowing I'm going to make seven figures come January, but the real difference is that my life is my own. I don't have a boss. I don't feel like I have to change who I am to fit into a culture that I don't like. I've actually created my own culture. My life is filled with people who care about the same things I do — spiritual growth and helping people — and it's fantastic.
More than anything, the difference is that, I feel like, for the first time in my life, I'm fulfilling my potential as a human being. I'm using all aspects of myself — my brain, my heart, my experience, my spirit — to do work that I think is really valuable and important. I'm finally becoming the man I always had the potential to be.
My life isn't perfect — sometimes I'm afraid. Sometimes I'm jealous of other people. I'm coming to understand that there is part of me that wants to impress people and be important. This feeling is always going to be with me, and my job is to not let it take over my life. Because when it does, I forget about what's truly important — my wife, my daughter, my baby on the way, my brothers and sister. My mom. My friends. The Groceryships and Everytable families. The people in my life who I love and am responsible for.
Our culture tells us that what is valuable is money, power, and fame, but the truth is, the only thing that really matters is our relationships, the people in our lives we love and who love us.
Commentary by Sam Polk, a former Wall Street trader and founder of Groceryships. Follow him on Twitter @SamPolk.