Make It

Why I walked away from Wall Street—and millions of dollars

Sam Polk is a recovering Wall Streeter. He grew up in Los Angeles, always dreaming about being rich. He attended Columbia University but wasn't what you'd call a model student. He caught a lucky break with a summer internship at Credit Suisse First Boston and that began his love affair with Wall Street – and money. He was at Bank of America for five years and then went to work for a hedge fund. In his last year on Wall Street, he got a $3.6 million bonus and it made him angry ... because it wasn't enough! So he quit. He walked away from Wall Street — and all that money — forever. Now, Polk lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles, with another baby on the way. He is the co-founder and CEO of Everytable, a social start-up that sells fresh meals at affordable prices and executive director of Groceryships, a nonprofit that helps low-income families overcome and avoid obesity. He just released a memoir titled, "For the Love of Money," and is a columnist for the New York Times.

In this updated Q&A, Sam talks about life on Wall Street and how he successfully broke his addiction to Wall Street and wealth.

What made you want to work on Wall Street in the first place?

My dad was always talking about making it big and what life would be like when we were rich. So, from a young age, that was my dream — to be rich — too. When I read Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker," about the platters of onion cheeseburgers being delivered onto the trading floor at 10 am and about traders screaming into their phones and then smashing them on the desk, I thought — this sounds pretty great. And then, when I read at the end of that book that he made $220,000 just two years out of college, I knew that Wall Street was where I wanted to go.

How did you get your first break on Wall Street?

My first years of college had been an epic disaster. I'd arrived at Columbia and immediately gone into full-blown party mode — drinking and drugs. So much so that by halfway through my sophomore year I'd been kicked off the wrestling team, arrested twice (once for drinking, once for fistfighting), and then suspended from college for burglarizing the room of another student. My grades were abysmal.

After my suspension, I returned to Columbia, determined to pull it together. So I cut way back on partying, started studying hard, and pulled my grades up. But a year later, when I started applying for Wall Street internships, my GPA was still sub 3.0, which meant I had almost no chance.

But I did have a pretty interesting resume. In the year and a half I'd spent away from Columbia, I'd worked at two internet companies — at the last one, I'd been the lead business-development guy for an up-and-coming, pre-IPO, company with like 200 employees. There weren't that many college kids with stuff like that on their resume.

"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."

What I left off of my resume, though, was that I'd been fired from that job for getting in a fistfight on company property, when a guy who I owed money to came to my office to collect.

Only two banks offered me an interview for a summer internship — Goldman and CSFB. In my Goldman interview, they asked me pointed questions about my grades and then ended the interview early. But the CSFB interview went well enough that they invited me back to Super Day, which was this intense day of five back-to-back interviews.

It was all going pretty poorly until my fourth interview. The interviewer took a look at my resume and said he was really impressed with my work experience, and that I'd been a wrestler. As we ended the interview he said, "I like you…I'm going to get you this job." And that's how I made it on to Wall Street.

Were you happy? What made you want to leave Wall Street?

At first, I wasn't so much happy as I was certain that I was in the perfect place in the world. I loved everything about Wall Street, the intellectual challenge of analyzing bonds and companies, the fact that you had to read the news and understand world events, because they impacted your trades. I loved it…I loved trading, traveling for business and talking about the markets. And more than anything, I wanted to be the guys I saw every day who had really made it, the guys who ran trading desks, or ran fixed-income departments. Not only did they have these awesome positions of authority, but you could tell just by listening to them talk that they made more money than anyone I'd ever known before.

In the same month I'd first started on Wall Street, I started talking to a spiritual counselor. I sought her out because I was trying to get over a breakup but I continued talking to her, week in and week out, for years after that.

Over the years, as I moved up and starting making big money myself, I started to notice that I still felt the same envy of the people ahead of me, and that I felt pretty empty inside. That awareness, I believe, was thanks to my spiritual counselor. She'd helped me realize that my deep desire to be rich was really about my dad. Not only taking on his desires — being rich was all he ever wanted — but also because the truth was my dad only took an interest in me when I was doing something impressive. I'd learned from a young age that in order to have value you had to succeed. But she helped me see how messed up that was. She used to always say, "When you hold a baby, they have value without doing anything, right? We are all valuable, from the moment we are born." Just because my dad didn't believe that, didn't mean it wasn't true.

As I started to regain a sense of my own value, I had this shocking realization that Wall Street was only about making money. And the reason I wanted a lot of money was so that I could prove to the world that I was valuable, important. Once I began to understand that I was valuable without money, then I started to see how crazy it was to fritter away this brief gift of life on years and years of 12-hour days and working on the weekends, just to grow the number in my Fidelity account.

So I started to think about leaving. That was not an easy process — it took years.

A lot of guys say they want to leave but never do. How did you do it? What was the catalyst and how did you pull it off — successfully leaving Wall Street?

Yeah, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I saw this stream of multimillion-dollar bonuses as far into the future as the eye could see, and I kept thinking: Am I crazy for thinking about walking away from what so many people in the world desperately want? But another part of me knew that there had to be something more to life than this endless accumulation of money, and this constant jockeying for position and power.

The catalyst for my leaving was that the 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. I don't mean to suggest it was an easy, clean process — it wasn't. I was upset, angry, resentful. I sort of manufactured a resentment at my bosses, and used that anger to get me over the hump of leaving.

Sam Polk, a former trader, founder of Groceryships and author of “For the Love of Money.” Here, he leads a Groceryships meeting, where participants learn about nutrition and healthy cooking.
Mimi Yip
Sam Polk, a former trader, founder of Groceryships and author of “For the Love of Money.” Here, he leads a Groceryships meeting, where participants learn about nutrition and healthy cooking.

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.