Make It

Why this Wall Street trader got mad about a $3.6 million bonus—and quit

For most people, getting a $3.6 million bonus would be a day to celebrate and high five a bunch of people. For Sam Polk, it made him mad.


Because it wasn't enough.

"I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted," Polk wrote in a 2014 New York Times op-ed that went viral.

Polk turned that op-ed into a book of the same title, "For the Love of Money," that just came out today.

The memoir is about Polk's meteoric rise on Wall Street during the go-go years of the new millennium. He climbed the ladder from summer intern at Credit Suisse to bond and credit-default-swap trader at Bank of America and then to the top rung of a behemoth hedge fund. He was a young, well-intentioned rising star on the Street, but a Boy Scout he was not.

From a very early age, Polk believed that being rich was the most important thing in the world — a lesson learned from his father, a man Polk describes as a "modern-day Willy Loman" type. He struggled with overeating/bulimia, alcoholism and drug addiction almost instantaneously as he first stepped foot onto Columbia University's campus. He was arrested twice and suspended before completing his sophomore year. In short, he was an addict in every sense of the word, so naturally he gravitated toward a career on Wall Street.

Although there was some luck involved in finding his fortuitous path to finance, he was aggressive, sharp and wouldn't quit. After a summer internship at Credit Suisse he didn't receive an offer for the following year. So he hit the phones in desperation to find a new lead. He called and left a message for one managing director every day for three weeks before getting a call back, which eventually resulted in his first job.

During his second year on the Bank of America bond desk, he got his first big trading idea. He bought Western Mining bonds. In his opinion, they were priced at a discount due to an imminent takeover. When a company gets acquired, the debt of that company becomes the debt of the acquiring company. That usually is positive for the price of the bonds, but one of the suitors was a debt-laden company. So, if that company won the bidding war, the price would plummet.

Convinced the debt-laden company wouldn't win the bidding war, Polk put on a $20 million position; which is a big deal for a rookie trader. But then a client came in as a seller and his position grew to $60 million and eventually $100 million. Now, it wasn't just his reputation at stake — his job was, too. Soon, fear kicked in, but it was mixed with a shot of adrenaline. He likened it to the feeling you get right before you get into a fist fight or scoring a giant bag of cocaine. He loved the rush.

Days passed without a headline scrolling across the tape which created sleepless nights. If Polk was wrong, he potentially could lose $5 million or $10 million. Finally, a week later, he saw the news: The debt-laden company hadn't won the bidding war. Polk just bagged his first seven-figure profit. And his image skyrocketed in the eyes of his peers. He went on to reach higher highs all the way until he walked away from it all.

"The catalyst for my leaving was that voice inside me calling for a more meaningful life finally became louder than the voice that was afraid of leaving and desperate for more money." -Sam Polk

I can relate to Polk's story: We had similar career paths that shot straight up. We both struggled with addiction. And we both realized we had to walk away from a seven-figure payday before it destroyed us.

I was a hedge-fund trader on the buy side, including a stint at Galleon Group. By 2003, I was making nearly $2 million a year but it never felt like it was enough. I fell into all the trappings of Wall Street — sex, drugs, alcohol and lavish spending. My career crashed and burned — hard. After my second stint in rehab, I had the opportunity to go back to Wall Street and make seven figures and, like Polk, I passed up the opportunity. Now, I make a lot less as a writer than I did then — but I've never been happier.

Polk's departure from Wall Street was a few years later during the financial collapse — he was surrounded by terrified millionaires and billionaires — not because they were going bankrupt or losing their homes, but the fact they might have less than they did yesterday. It was the antithesis of the Gordon Gekko "Greed is good" moment.

"The catalyst for my leaving was that voice inside me calling for a more meaningful life finally became louder than the voice that was afraid of leaving and desperate for more money," Polk said.

It turns out the meaningful voice for him led him to the intersection of poverty and obesity. He's the founder and executive director of Groceryships, a nonprofit aimed at improving long-term health and wellness in low-income communities. He's also founder and CEO of Everytable, a social enterprise that sells fresh, ready-to-eat meals, affordable for all. Polk has been able to redefine success for himself — something a bank account never could do for him.

"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," Polk said in an interview with CNBC. "I'm finally becoming the man I always had the potential to be."

"For the Love of Money" is about a trader who fell down the rabbit hole. It's a well-worn tale, I know. You stop short on the sidewalk in New York City and 10 guys with the same story will pile into you. But folks would be remiss if they jumped on that bandwagon before reading Sam Polk's memoir. It's a raw, honest and intimate take on one man's journey in and out of the business — and it illuminates why someone would walk away from all that money.

It really gives readers something to think about: Whether you're on the side of courage or crazy, could you walk away from that kind of money?

Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side." He is a commentator on CNBC's "Filthy Rich Guide" and a consultant on the Showtime show, "Billions," starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.

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