Leaving Wall Street To Become A Better Man - An Interview With Sam Polk

First off, Sam, congrats on the success your memoir "For the love of money." Given that it's about your decision to leave finance, a world you called a "selfish, arrogant culture" at one point, how has the reaction been? I jest, but have you received death threats?

I haven't actually gotten that much blowback! I was amazed to see I even got a favorable New Yorker review that really understood what I was trying to say on a deep level, and that was truly gratifying. At its heart, I think this is a book about being a man in America and dealing with the two things that are top of mind to most men: a) ambition, and b) issues with women. I think of it as "Liar's Poker" meets "Eat, Pray, Love." It is a spiritual journey, just one that happens to take place on Wall Street.


You had a hard youth--very little money, fighting parents, a hard-to-please father, an inattentive mother, the traumatic death of your dog dying of heat exhaustion in your family car, fighting with your brother: Is that somewhat essential to the making of someone who wants to become a millionaire banker? To have had a youth so difficult you never want to go back to it?

That's a really good question. Because everyone thinks that Wall Street is about kids who were born with silver spoons in their mouths. But yes, my childhood, basically was a large number of difficult and traumatic experiences creating a hole inside of me, that I then spent many, many years trying to fill. First through drugs, sex, alcohol, but when I stopped those things, then it was mostly with money. I do think that Wall Street draws "damaged people" who are seeking to compensate for that damage through success and money, often to the exclusion of all else.

What could have gone differently in your life so that you wouldn't have gone into finance?

I think that, for the most part that babies are born "intact," with a wholeness and sense of inherent worth and for many of me, my childhood chopped away at. So it fractured, and ultimately broke. And I guess the ideal that I have is that If you raise kids, if there is a level of respect and care in the parent/ child relationship, you'll get a kid who emerges into adulthood with a sense of their own value and worth. So then the career they choose is about what they're drawn to, as opposed to me, which was about choosing a career I felt would compensate me on a deep level for what was broken inside me.

When did the idea of a career on Wall Street first occur to you--and why?

There were two moments--One, reading Liar's Poker (by Michael Lewis) and taking in those images of cheeseburgers at 10am, and traders slamming their phones down until they shatter, and playing poker on the trading floor for $10 million, and making $230,000 his second year out of college... For a kid who was desperate for money and success? Michael Lewis says he wrote the book to dissuade people from Wall Street, but to me, he created the most glamorous, adult-filled vision I could possibly imagine. I read that and thought, "OK, Wall Street trading floors are the coliseum for my young ambition." The 2nd moment was walking onto the trading floor and seeing not only these guys who seemed to be playing a video game for a living, but looking at the clothes they wore, the cut of their hair, the wads of cash in their pocket--I understood instantly that these men would never deal with what my youth had been rife with--living paycheck to paycheck, junky cars, power getting turned off.

Does anyone in finance ever have "enough"?

Well, obviously I can't speak for everyone on Wall Street, but if you're asking me, do I know people who seem truly "content" in their lives on Wall Street? Not really. Many of them reach out to me today, asking me how I got the "courage" to leave it behind. But I don't think it was courage. I just ultimately knew I had no choice but to walk away, in order to be "me."

Have you connected with other former Wall Street'ers who've made a similar departure?

Again, I've talked with a ton who are thinking of making this move, but don't. And that's a pattern. There is so much unhappiness in these "successful" industries, where people thought this kind of success was going to fix them, and it doesn't. Most would think if you've got $10 million in the bank, it should be easy to leave. But they have this unfathomable fear of leaving. People are legitimately trapped in this cycle of compensation. They have these lives they want to leave, yet still feel stuck in.

A lot of people said to you, hey, you're making all this money, why not stay in finance, take all this money, and just channel it towards some social good? Create a non-profit, etc?

I think that's one of the comments I've gotten the most. But it exposes that belief in the "primacy" of money, that it's the most important thing there is. But I now know, with Groceryships and Everytable, what it's like to have a vision inside of you, and to try to make it real in the world. It requires money, yes, but the idea that you'd spend your life making money for the supposed satisfaction of giving it away, that's what I call "financial bulimia." It misses the point of really having a "life." This idea that "I found this job, that doesn't really make me happy, but will pay me this money, give me a better lifestyle," is like sidestepping the most important journey of your life. And in that sense, I think Wall Street and other well-paying careers are a great place for people to hide. "Culture thinks I'm successful, and I have a lifestyle I like, and I don't really have to risk exposing myself to the world." And that's a shame.

Lets ask what many are thinking: Do you "hate" Wall Street?

No, although that's how it's been seen. I'm still friends with most guys I knew on Wall Street. I'm sure there's criminality on Wall Street that deserves investigation, but most guys on Wall St are just hard-working guys trying to find that next rung on the ladder that's been held out to them after Andover and Harvard, etc. And it's not that that's so wrong. It's just the nature of addiction; you're trying to fill this need inside of you. You'll do whatever you need to make yourself feel powerful. But eventually I started to see where I stood in the system of the world. And I realized I didn't really like that system. And at the end of my career, I saw my white privilege, I could see if I were born in the Bronx or Compton, that I would have a much tougher life than the kid born in Westwood. And so, I became passionate about changing that.

There's an idea out there in spiritual circles that we all have six human needs - certainty, variety, love significance, growth and contribution. For me, significance is my big trigger. When someone questions my value, my significance, the whiskers on my back fly straight up. Was that the same for you? "Hey dad! World--SEE ME!!"

One hundred percent. My core wound comes from my dad. And specifically because he was a rageful narcissist, often getting to the point of emotional and physical violence... All I can say is: all I wanted as a kid was to seem important to my dad, significant to him. You can look at my career on Wall Street as me trying to play that out, over and over, especially to the father figure bosses that I kept creating for myself. Can I be successful enough so that I'm finally loved?

About your father: what do you think it was that he didn't get as a kid, that led him to be the way he was?

Well, he had an abusive, maybe even psychotic father, and a very fraught relationship with his mother. I think my dad, too, was broken as a kid, and because of his childhood, he was never capable of seeing beyond his own pain. And that's a tough father to have.

In high school, after your bout with being overweight, you took up wrestling--an obsessive sport that requires massive sacrifice with the intense training, the cutting weight. Is that kind of suffering an apt metaphor for life on Wall Street? The long hours? Postponing fulfillment?

Absolutely. It's a sport about how much pain you can endure for brief moments of glory. And if you think about it, finance--in particular investment banking and private equity--it's all about killing yourself for this one moment of glory at the end of the year when you get your bonus and then it's all supposed to be worth it. And of course it never is.

You had a few mentors in finance whom you truly admired--in particular Marshall Masters, about whom you wrote, "I may not have been born with a good father, but I have found one." That first year working for him, not making a ton of money yet, he plainly offered you a stack of cash from his glovebox one day, saying "If you ever need $100,000, call me, no questions asked." What was it about that moment that reduced you to tears?

If you think back to the time where my dog died of heat exhaustion in our family car, and my dad wouldn't replace the upholstery that the dog had torn up trying to escape... "Too expensive," he said. The money he would have to spend was not worth my emotional well-being. He was essentially saying You're not worth it. But years later, I now have a father figure in my life who is saying "I trust you, and whatever you need, you can have. Just ask." I may have been a 23 yr old trader, but emotionally, I was still 13, still wounded. And Marshall was saying to me, "I trust you, take what you need," was the first time told me, "You have innate value."

You eventually quit drinking in your 20's. What made you walk away from it?

My alcoholism was sort of going on in parallel with these massive self-destructive events in my life. I got kicked off the wrestling team. Outed as a bulimic. Kicked out of college for robbing a student. Then I finally got this great job and then lost that due to my violence. Eventually, all these personas I had donned--Sam the wrestler, Sam the Columbia student, Sam the internet entrepreneur, had all been taken away from me. And once my girlfriend Sloane Taylor broke up with me, I had nothing left. So whether or not it was the drinking, I decided the way I was living my life wasn't working.

And it was that girlfriend, Sloane, who wanted you to do couples therapy and introduced you to your eventual long-term therapist, Linda. You were resistant to seeing a therapist at first. But what made you change your mind about it?

Well, if you distill every religion or tradition, at the base of it are these basic values of humility, and respect, helping others, and to me, I heard an essence of "truth" in what she was saying. At the time, my broken thinking was, "If I can get Sloane to stay with me, and if I get this job, and make X money, then everything will be ok." And my therapist Linda was basically saying, "Sam, you are valuable no matter what." And all that seemed way better than what I was listening to in my own head.

Why aren't more men coming around to the idea of seeing a therapist or counselor of some kind? What's the obstacle?

One, I think men are taught to avoid vulnerability, and two, vulnerability is very uncomfortable. There's a lot of guys who will take the devil they know over the one they don't, who have have built up this shell of pretention or faux success or whatever image they're trying to project to the world, and to unearth what's beneath that? That's deeply uncomfortable to deal with.

You also eventually decided to quit porn. That's becoming more of a movement these days for men, but what made you come to this decision?

You know, porn wasn't ever some massive addiction for me, it wasn't "taking over my life" or anything, it was just this "habit" that I looked forward to. But eventually, I realized porn wasn't something I felt was contributing anything to the world, except dark degradation and subjugation of women. Ultimately it came down to a point of integrity for me. And I couldn't be a part of it anymore.

So you were very critical of your own father doing your youth, with good reason. Now that you've become a father, what lessons from your youth do you hope to apply to your own parenting?

It's not that I'm angry at my father... I've come to understand my dad as damaged. And I'm trying to love him in spite of that. But the one thing I know about my dad is that he was more focused on himself than his kids, and the one north star I hold with my daughter is that I come second, and I always will, and will always do what it takes to be there for her.

You've recently written in the New York Times about the demeaning ways in which men in finance treat women--"bro talk" keeping women down. Based on what you've seen or heard from women themselves, what is the experience like for women in finance?

Women I've spoken to in finance often feel like they don't get respect, or a fair deal. From lower pay than their male counterparts, to inappropriate comments and jokes, to the general feeling of being ogled on trading floors, many women say the culture feels disrespectful.

What can finance do to change that?

Well, we need to change the culture. And that requires men first understanding that inappropriate comments, even when no women are around, contribute to a negative, disrespectful, non-inclusive culture for women. The next step to the solution will be men speaking up and taking on responsibility for creating a more respectful culture towards women.

After you left Wall Street, you eventually founded two publicly-focused endeavors, Groceryships and Everytable, delivering healthy food to the underprivileged. How did you come to choose the area of food and nutrition as the one cause to devote yourself to in your new direction?

I chose to dedicate myself to the food arena because I've experienced my own issues with food throughout my entire life. I was a teased, bullied, overweight kid growing up, and my family was overweight as well. Solving issues around food is a personal passion of mine. I have a deep understanding of how the consequences of obesity are not just financial and health-related, but also emotional and spiritual - especially in kids. There is this deep correlation between hunger and obesity, so I wanted to do something of value for the people who'd been left behind. Together with my business partner David Foster, we're excited to be creating a community that, together, is democratizing healthy food. It's been such an exciting journey to witness how we've impacted the lives of so many families, and it's movement we plan to keep growing.

This interview was originally posted on The Good Men Project: