Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Sam Polk, a former trader for CSFB, the head distressed trader for one of the largest hedge funds in the world who left Wall Street because he wanted to live a more meaningful life, founding Groceryships, a non-profit that helps low-income families struggling with obesity, about what it takes to break addictive habits that keep you from leading the life you want and bringing your heart and soul to your work and career.
Listen to the complete podcast.
Stew Friedman: Sam, I learned about you when you wrote a much-talked about opinion piece in the New York Times For the Love of Money. You described your evolution for Wall Street hedge fund trader earning $3.6M in bonus money at age 30 (and being disappointed with the small size of the bonus), your confrontation with your addiction, as you called it, to money, and your scary decision to leave this lucrative, but for you, empty and deadening life. You ultimately founded GroceryShips, a company that feeds the hungry. The reason I wanted to talk with you is that your story is such a compelling (and extreme) example of someone who was able, through a crucible, to find a way to truly live an integrated life. Can you share with our listeners your story?
Sam Polk: I went to Wall Street when I was 22 years old, just out of Columbia. I remember going onto the trading floor and everything I wanted in life was right there. I grew up sort of middle class. My dad read about successful businessmen in the paper every day and being successful was ingrained in me. When I walked onto the trading floor, I could tell just by looking at the clothes people wore – their haircuts, their suntans (you could tell they played golf) – that I’d never seen people as wealthy as this. And it was everything I wanted.
After the article I got hundreds of letters from college kids more or less asking me to help them get a job on Wall Street.
SF: But wait, the article was about you leaving Wall Street because you found that it wasn’t meeting your inner needs, though it was more than meeting your financial needs. And they were asking you to help them get jobs on Wall Street?!
SP: I understand why. They hear that success is all about being rich, powerful or famous and these kids are insecure, they don’t have any of these things. I was like that at 22 and just graduating. They’re getting strong cultural messages. I think 3% of our cultural dialogue says “don’t be a money lender” and “money doesn’t bring happiness,” but 97% says “get as much money as you can, as quickly as you can” and Wall Street is the place for that. I feel compassion for these college kids, the culture says you’re important if you start a tech company and make a $1M.
I had a black car waiting for me when I landed, I went to countless World Series games, sat in the 2nd row at the Knicks games whenever I wanted. It’s a tremendous feeling of power. I was living the life. Making money feels good. You come home and show your girlfriend, “look at this, I’m proud of this.”
The college kids want to be Lloyd Blankfein (CEO and Chairman, Goldman Sachs). I was like that. They feel envy and I did too. No matter how many millions I made. Trading was the coolest thing in the world. So I understand why these college kids are writing to me wanting to be on Wall Street and hoping I’ll be able to help them get a job there.
SF: So what happened? What changed for you? Why did you give it all up? Was there a moment? An epiphany?
SP: I began to realize that the stuff I was doing every day didn’t matter, even though I was being so well compensated. There were so many moments including one during the hedge fund crisis. Other brokers were against any new regulations on the industry, and I said, in a meeting in front of my boss, “but isn’t this better for the system as a whole.” And my boss said, “I can only think about what’s good for our company.” My dream was to a billionaire; a billionaire was a hero. The fact that my boss (who was a billionaire) was self-seeking made me realize that there was no end point. I have enough, let me go do what I was meant to do.
Kids wrote saying, “I just want to travel, take care of my family, I just want $6M.” I don’t have that. And most people don’t. If you get to $6M, you want $12M. Money, power and prestige fill that hole.
SF: So, what about that void that you wrote about? You weren’t able to truly bring your whole self to work as a hedge fund trader, but now your personal passions fuel your work.
SP: I was trying to fill this hole inside me, this sense of worthless. The only way I thought I was valuable was Columbia, millions of dollars, a big loft apartment on Bond Street; those things you get when you are on Wall Street. Then I realized the hole is still there. We have this brief life and if you play out the Wall Street story all the way, you get $100M and the world thinks he’s successful. But he’s spent his whole life getting money and accolades for himself.
SF: So how did you get out?
SP: I had a spiritual teacher, a Native American women, for whom I more grateful than anything I can imagine. Three weeks into first internship I was dating this girl so out of my league; I was punching outside of my weight class. She dumped me three weeks in. First love. I didn’t see it coming. It was a devastating heartbreak. I could barely eat or get out of bed. But I had this internship, and besides this girlfriend, that was the most important thing to me at the time. I needed help. This girlfriend had brought me in to couples counseling with this Native American spiritual teacher who was the only counselor I knew. I went every week. No Ph.D. No Ivy League. No thank you, was what I thought then. She had a completely different perspective from the one on Wall Street which was all about hierarchy, bigger, and more being valuable and important. Wall Street was all about the chase to get the top. And she said, “No, there is no hierarchy. We are all equally valuable and that the value of the life is in the inner character, not in outside achievements. It’s about treating people with compassion.” I thought she was wacko. I wanted to know how can I get over the breakup so I can make money. At the beginning I believe her 10% of the time and I believed in the Wall Street philosophy 90% of the time. But over 8 years it shifted, little by little until the balance went in the other direction; I believed her philosophy 90% and I believed in Wall Street’s 10%. It was like in The Matrix, taking a red pill and seeing how the world really is. On Wall Street people refer to other people by the size of their bank account; he’s a $100Millionaire. Money is the signifier.
SF: So, what happened when you left?
SP: I left when I was 30 and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done until then. (I know other people have it harder in life, but for me, that was the hardest thing I’d done.)
SF: What was the reaction?
SP: I heard, “I’m sorry you’re leaving. I think y could have made a lot of money”
SF: A bonus of over $3.5M was not already a lot of money?
SP: I had to give back half that year’s the bonus because I left. I gave up almost $2M to walk away. And I was in contention to be head of trading. I’d been so focused on making money my whole life. A lot of people didn’t agree. My Dad didn’t agree. But I didn’t seek his counsel. There were different cultural values. My Dad was this guy focused on money and on himself and his extra-curriculars and not on me. As a kid I was desperate to impress him. Wall Street and my bosses were my dad. I was trying to impress my boss.
SF: So how’d you go from there to founding GroceryShips? And what is GroceryShips?
SP:GroceryShips is a health program for low income folks struggling with obesity. We go into a community, get applications from families, select 10 families who will receive food scholarships. We provide healthy cooking classes, emotional support groups, education about food, how to read labels, how to manage stress, deal with mental health, talk about childhood trauma if it’s affecting emotional eating. And we provide incentives. For example, if you and your family eat 5 fruits or vegetable a day or lose weight, we provide money for healthy food. The support for these folks comes not just from GroceryShips but from each other.
SF: How did you come up with this idea?
SP: My family struggled with obesity. Two people in my family had bariatric surgery (stomach stapling). I went in the other direction with wrestling. But food was always in issue in my life. When I walked away from Wall Street one of the things that I was able to see is that in this hierarchy we on Wall Street we step over people as we strive to get to the top. There’s waste in their backyards, highways in their neighborhoods; these folks are seen as not as valuable to those of us on Wall Street. I spent my whole life climbing the rungs. And, of course, obesity exists in wealthy communities, but it mostly affects the poor. Groceryships focuses on equality, not hierarchy, and on reciprocity. We focus in people who need help, but we treat them as equals, with total respect. Reciprocity is the structure of the organization. We’re a non-profit with an extensive nutrition and health curriculum. We’re expanding into corporate wellness, and using those earnings to pay for low income in surrounding areas.
SF: Why would an organization hire Groceryships for their wellness programing? What do they get out of it?
SP: if they’re looking for a wellness program, we’ll bring one plus their money will go to low income communities in their surrounding areas. I believe that people are good and if you are faced with two choices and one has a social good component and it’s good public relations, then it’s an easy choice. Companies use Groceryships both for corporate wellness and for civic engagement and for P.R.
SF: The changes you’ve made in your work and your life are quite dramatic. What advice do you have for others?
SP: First,Wall Street is not evil; it’s just that something was missing in my life. I now haveintegrity in the way of everything works together. I work just as hard, but all with one thing in mind. I’m living a life in line with my principles. My life not perfect. But there is no dissonance inside me.
When I left most people congratulated me, and said that they wished that they could do the same, but that they couldn’t do it yet. The idea is that they’ll do it as long as they can, to get the most money out of it before they can move on to what they really want to do.
So, I say to others: Respect where you are. It’s hard to make a change like this. If graduate from Wharton, for example, you can expect to make more than $400K/year in the next few years and then maybe about $3M or more per year if you go to Wall Street. That’s the straight and narrow, “right” path. The left side is path you can’t see. Inside every one of us is the unique compilation, the one path that no one has taken before. It’s your gift to the world. You can’t go right way, but you have to go left. I made one huge trade that combined all my years of training, education and experience and expertise and in one trade I made $5M and I thought that with all these gifts, and talents, and opportunities, I could be doing something else. Take your Goldman Sachs or take a different path.
SF: What is your gift to bring to the world? How can you ask for help? How can you explore and learn about other paths that will help you lead the life you want?
Sam Polk is the Founder and Executive Director of Groceryships, a former trader for Bank of America and the head distressed trader for one of the largest hedge funds in the world. After eight years on Wall Street, he left because he wanted to live a more meaningful life. He founded Groceryships, a non-profit that helps low-income families struggling with obesity. In January 2014, he published an OpEd about money addiction on the front page of The Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To learn more, go to www.Groceryships.org and follow on Twitter @GroceryShips, and Sam on @SamPolk