When I was on Wall Street I felt empty, and 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, and I think I understand why. Our greatest desire as humans, I believe, is to feel connected, and there is something terribly disconnected about having millions in the bank, a loft apartment in Manhattan, and a house in the Hamptons, and still going to work with the sole purpose of accumulating more. I'm not judging it — that's what I did for almost a decade.
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I'm just saying that 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.
How did your Wall Street friends react when you decide to leave? Do you still stay in touch with any of them?
In the first days after I left I got dozens of phone calls. Most people congratulated me for having the courage to do what they wanted to do. A lot of them asked questions about how I'd done it — the interaction with my bosses — and what I was going to do after. But after about a week, the calls dried up, and I had this horrifying realization that Wall Street was going on without me, as if I'd never existed at all.
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.
If you had it to all over again (working on Wall Street), would you?
I've gotten letters from dozens, maybe even hundreds, of college kids. Most of them just want me to help them get on to Wall Street (now I know how Michael Lewis feels!), but some of them are really grappling with this inner conflict, where a part of them wants to do something good for the world, but the other part of them is yearning for the security that comes with money and prestige. I admire those kids, because they are way farther along than I was, then.
I'm grateful to Wall Street. Not only has it brought into my life some of my closest friends, it's also brought into my life a mentor who is like a father to me. In some sense, I discovered who I was on Wall Street. And that, of course, is incredibly lucky — while I was going through this spiritual quest, I was also making money, so now I have a cushion that allows me to write and work for no salary at a nonprofit — and that is a blessing.
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.
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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, 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 every day conversation. There is a profound disrespect for women on Wall Street. They are talked about as a collection of body parts, instead of whole human beings. The lecherous looks and comments that young women receive in bars from drunk, lecherous managing directors, most of whom are married, are ugly and scary.
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.
My other regret is that I spent eight years on Wall Street. In an alternate universe, where I didn't have this deep hole inside me, where I wasn't battling the belief systems of my father, where I was in touch with the purpose that I have come to find today, what could I have accomplished? Eight years is a long time — I became an expert in derivatives, I learned about the bankruptcy process and how to trade distressed bonds. That took a ton of energy. What if I'd spent that trying to create or build something that could really have made a difference in the world? I believe we all have these unique gifts inside us, and we are here so that we can pass those on to others. I used my gifts to make a lot of money for my billionaire bosses, and for myself. What if I'd used my time in another way?
Tell us about your business now — how did you come up with the idea?
It's a non-profit called Groceryships, (scholarships for groceries), which is a program to help low-income families struggling with obesity and diabetes by providing nutrition education, financial assistance, 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.
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I was profoundly influenced by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who started the gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries. In Father Greg's mind (or, rather, his heart), he saw gang members as equally valuable as anyone in society, and so instead of spending his life clawing his way to the top, he'd spent his reaching down below him, gathering people up, and reminding them of their own value. I'd read his book, "Tattoos on the Heart," and I realized that I wanted more to be like him, than I wanted to be like Jamie Dimon.
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.
Was Groceryships the first thing you did after Wall Street or was there some other career move (s) inbetween?
About six months after I left Wall Street and moved to Los Angeles, I got a call from the former head of Citibank's credit trading, who I'd come to know when we worked together on some cool trades involving CDS auctions. He'd moved out to LA to work for Michael Milken, and manage Mr. Milken's vast personal fortune, and he wanted me to come work for them.
Michael Milken was a hero of mine. During the time I read "Liar's Poker" in college, I'd also read "Den of Thieves" and "Predator's Ball" about how Michael Milken had single-handedly created the high-yield bond market. I'd read about him reading 10-K's on dark pre-dawn busses to work using a miner's headlamp. I'd read about how he moved the Drexel trading desk from the East Coast to Beverly HIlls over a single weekend. And I'd especially remembered the story where he sat down with a salesman to give him his annual bonus and said, "Your bonus is $10 million" which was far higher than the guy expected. And then Mr. Milken said, "What else can I do to make you happy?" In a lot of ways, Michael Milken was my hero (I'd sort of ignored all the illegal stuff!). And getting the opportunity to work directly for him felt, to me, like that moment in the Godfather—"Just when I'm out, they pull me back in!"
But I was deeply conflicted. I knew I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life, but at the same time, this was Michael Milken. So I made an internal compromise. A few weeks later, I went in for a big interview with Michael Milken. I was led into this enormous office with floor to ceiling books, and Michael Milken sat down across from me on a couch, and started asking me questions about investing.
After he was done, he asked me if I had questions. And I told him that, if he hired me, I'd want to take half the money I earned and put it into a social business fund that would start businesses and non-profits in lower income L.A. neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles, Inglewood, Compton, Boyle Heights, and I'd want his full support on that. He gave me this weird look, but then said he thought that was a great idea. Then he walked over to his desk, pulled out these three big binders, and brought them over to me. One was about Demographics in Asia, another was about the U.S. health-care system, and the other one was about financial regulations. He said, I want to see how you think, so study these, and I'll call you in three days.
I spent the next three days immersed in those binders, studying them 10 hours a day. Mr. Milken had mentioned that he'd enjoyed the animated movie "Up," so I watched that, too, in case it came up in conversation. Within a very brief time, I'd gone from being done with Wall Street, to being desperate for this job.
On the third day, I woke up at 4:30am (I'd read that Mr. Milken gets up unusually early), brewed a pot of coffee, and waited. The morning passed. Then the afternoon. Then the evening. At 9pm, I finally admitted to myself that he wasn't going to call. I called Michael Meyer, my mentor, who assured me that billioniares are busy, and he'd call tomorrow. But he didn't, or the next day, or the next.
I was devastated. Looking back, I see how easy it is for me to fall into this place of wanting to impress powerful men. When I told my counselor how depressed I was, she was like, what? I thought you were leaving Wall Street! She said that I needed to stop "giving my power away to powerful men" and that instead of trying to "get" from the world, I might see what I could "give."
So I started writing and doing volunteer work, which I did for the next 3 years. That writing turned into the memoir that will be published in 2015 by Scribner. And that volunteer work, which included teaching writing to foster kids, and speaking in jails and juvenile halls about getting sober, became the most fulfilling part of my life, which then led to Groceryships.
I think now that Michael Milken probably wisely saw that my inner conflict was deep enough to not make me a great employee. I will say, though, that I think he owes me three days back, and a phone call.
How is your life is different now vs. when you were on Wall Street?
Logistically, it's very different. I don't wake up with an alarm (except now I have a 3-month-old daughter, so I sort of do). I work from home — I run Groceryships from an office in my house. I no longer get invited to dinner at Nobu or Masa or Per Se, or whatever the L.A. equivalent is. I have to pay for my own Lakers or Dodgers tickets. I don't have that 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.
I don't mean to paint a rosy picture where everything is perfect. Sometimes I'm afraid. Sometimes I'm jealous of other people. I'm coming to understand that this part of me that wants to impress people and be important is always going to be with me, and that 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 brothers and sister. My mom. My friends. The Groceryships 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.
But sometimes I miss Nobu…
Raising a family, building Groceryships into a movement, a book tour, and a speaking career, I think. More than anything, I want to find the right words, to express what I feel in my heart in a way that touches people. I want to give voice to what I've come to understand, which is that the problems in our world — the inequality, global warming, mass incarceration, rampant poverty — are symptoms of a massive spiritual disconnection on a cultural level, and that's something that can't be fixed with new laws or regulations or tax rates. There is no legislative answer to a spiritual problem. Rather, we need to reconnect with the wholeness, and empathy, and love, and desire to include and embrace, that we were all born with, but that got lost along the way.
Commentary by Sam Polk, a former Wall Street trader and founder of Groceryships. Follow him on Twitter