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Walking Away from Wall Street

Sam Polk had a cushy hedge fund job worth potentially hundreds millions of dollars. His new book outlines his rags-to-riches climb — and what happened next.

For most of us, the prospect of winning a multi-million-per-year job on Wall Street seems as remote as winning the lottery. We do no more than daydream about what we might do if we had two commas in our bank accounts.

Sam Polk didn’t daydream. He devoted his entire life to climbing the social ladder from a working class family to an ultra-lucrative hedge fund job in New York. For many people, Polk’s life rated as the ultimate success story.

That is, until he left it all behind.

In his new memoir, For the Love of Money, Sam Polk outlines his checkered past, his successful Wall Street career, and his decision to walk away.

What shifted Polk’s thinking about life in the fast and lucrative lane? One key moment came in the wake of the financial crisis as he listened to his peers complain about their loss of bonuses in the wake of massive government bailouts.

“I knew Wall Street wasn’t about doing seeming meaningful with your life, but I had seen it as a great coliseum for my young ambitions,” he reflects. “Now it looked less like a meritocracy than an oligarchy.”

Polk grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, the son of a violent father who left deep emotional scars. He went on to attend Columbia University, competing on the school’s wrestling team and spending most of his free time abusing alcohol and drugs. Over time he developed an eating disorder and an alcohol addiction.

In short, Polk had problems. But he also had the status of an Ivy League school behind him and benefited from the doors that elite university status opens.

Eventually, after some run-ins with the law, Polk managed to lie his way into a prestigious Wall Street internship, and that led to a job investing at Bank of America. That job started Polk on a meteoric rise. Each year, his paychecks grew ever higher.

But not his satisfaction. After spending his twenties climbing the ladder, Polk found himself increasingly demoralized.

“First I wanted to be a trader, then I wanted to be a [credit default swap] trader, then I wanted to be a distressed trader, now I’m at a hedge fund, and what I want is to run my own hedge fun,” he finds himself musing. “And to do it, I need to work in a place I don’t much like, doing work that doesn’t bring any value to the world.”

Despite all the misgivings, Polk would stay put. Maybe, he thought, he could put his future fortunes into philanthropic causes. Ever so slowly, he began seeing this seductive rationale as just another excuse to avoid his wealth addiction. With millions already in the bank, he was “going to work every day with the sole purpose of accumulating more.”

This need to attain more money began to feel like all the other addictions he’d battled in his life.

“It reminded me of the way I used to drink,” he writes in For the Love of Money. “The way I used to eat. Making money just to give it away seemed like some form of financial bulimia.”

Polk may not the first successful Wall Street banker to become disillusioned or burn out. He’s definitely not the first to write a tell-all about his experience. The canonical example, Michael Lewis’s 1989 Liar’s Poker, has invited countless copies and variations, most recently the hit 2013 movie Wolf of Wall Street and Kevin Roose’s insightful Young Money.

But what actually happens on Wall Street remains largely a mystery to most of us, as does the motivation behind the greed and recklessness of Wall Street bankers who are paid so much to do so little for the common good.

Polk manages to help the reader understand just how Wall Street really runs from the inside. What are the motivations behind having a million — a billion for that matter —and still wanting more?

In one scene in his book, Polk is reeling after realizing his anniversary present to his girlfriend had gone way over the top, as compensation for not really loving her. 

This need to attain more money began to feel like all the other addictions he’d battled in his life.

“Is it enough? What I’d really been asking was, Am I enough?” he writes. “That’s why I always needed more money, a bigger job, a better-looking girl on my arm. I was compensating, because at heart I didn’t believe I was enough.”

All of the obscenely wealth investors around him, Polk started to realize, were facing the same insecurities. They also lived scared. They expressed that fear in different ways. Some bought real estate and country club memberships in wealthy areas to insulate themselves, others guns to protect themselves.

Polk decided to take the harder route. With the help of a trusted counselor, he began the difficult journey to face down his demons and do the tough internal work that gave him the power to walk away. He would begin a new career as a social entrepreneur.

Polk’s new venture, EveryTable, aims to provide low-cost, high quality food options to affluent and poor neighborhoods alike, at a sliding price scale. He’s also entered the advocacy world as a member of the Patriotic Millionaires, advocating against the tax breaks and sweetheart deals he knows only exist as a result of the power of the 1 percent.

For the Love of Money offers an engaging look into one man’s journey into the halls of financial power in this country and out the other side. A worthy read indeed for anyone looking to understand the addiction to wealth that permeates our financial sector today.

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