[box] We are thrilled to feature this inspirational interview between Larry Katz and Sam Polk. It’s incredible the way a mentor at the right time can pry us open, leaving just enough space for the light to shine in, providing enough leverage for the next unexpected mentor to step up. Enjoy![/box]
Would you walk away from a job that paid millions?
Sam Polk did.
Four years ago Polk was working for a Wall Street hedge fund. When he received a $3.8 million bonus on top of a $1.5 million salary, Polk reacted with anger. He demanded that his bosses increase his bonus to $8 million. They raised their offer, but only if he agreed to stay with the firm for several more years.
Polk refused. He said he didn’t want to make the commitment.
But the bonus amount wasn’t the reason Polk quit his job. He had come to believe he was an addict hooked on making money—and it didn’t feel good.
Polk tells his compelling story in “For the Love of Money,” an essay published in January on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday Review. It attracted far more notice than he expected.
“I had no idea of the impact it would have,” Polk said from Los Angeles, where he has launched Groceryships, a non-profit he has co-founded with his wife to provide needy families with “scholarships for groceries.”
“I’ve gotten over 10,000 emails,” he said. “I’ve been interviewed and been on all these radio and TV shows. It’s been overwhelming and shocking.”
In his New York Times story, Polk outlines how he came to understand the wisdom of that old saying, “Money can’t buy happiness.” It wasn’t an easy lesson, especially since he grew up being told the exact opposite. Polk’s salesman father, he writes, “believed money would solve all his problems.” Then, while attending Columbia University, Polk read in “Liar’s Poker” how a young Michael Lewis made hundreds of thousands as a Wall Street bond trader. He somehow missed the book’s dark side.
“My heroes,” Polk said, “were people who had made billions of dollars and risen to the top of Wall Street.”
A very different set of heroes would emerge later in Polk’s life—unexpected mentors who would profoundly alter his definition of success and a well-lived life. We wanted to know more about these influences and Sam Polk was happy for the opportunity to tell us about them.
“Three weeks into my first internship on Wall Street I got dumped by this girl I was in love with. I was so devastated that I reached out to someone I would not have normally reached out to, a sort of spiritual teacher who I had met in a couples counseling session with my girlfriend years before. She was this woman who lived in Santa Monica, but she talked about her Native American heritage and her Cherokee belief system. To me it sounded completely wacko. But I was dumped by this girl and this woman (Linda Redbird) seemed to me like a therapist, though I came to understand that she wasn’t a therapist at all. She was the only person I knew to call for help. So I reached out to her and started working with her.
“Over the entire period of time I was on Wall Street I was talking to Linda every week. A lot of stuff we were doing was dealing with my childhood and the pain I had from my relationship with my dad, which was stored inside me. But also she’d been talking about these Native American beliefs, which were not a religious system of rules but a way of looking at the world. Talking about how everybody is of equal importance. How everyone has something to contribute. How the path of life is about attaining wisdom and humility for the purpose of serving the greater good, serving the community. In the beginning this stuff sounded so crazy, but over the years I came to agree with what she was saying. And it was diametrically opposed to what Wall Street was about. For a while those two belief systems came into conflicts.
“Linda and I talked by phone, and then later by Skype. Sometimes I would go see her in person, because L.A. is where I’m from. You have to understand I was always a really sensitive guy, but I was also an Ivy League wrestler who had a lot of beliefs about being tough and being cool, always trying to be popular and impress other people. Then I found myself in this room with the spiritual teacher. She would light incense and the lights would dim and she would have me close my eyes. She would take me into these guided memories where I would talk about my childhood. It was the corniest thing I could ever have imagined. I was just so glad that the door was locked so nobody could see how embarrassed I was. But at the same time it was exactly what I needed—I just didn’t know it at the time. Stuff would come out during those meditations that I had no idea was trapped inside me.
“The belief system I had going in was thinking that the way you define an expert was, ‘Did they go to Harvard? How much money did they make? How many letters did they have behind their name?’ And Linda had none of those things. She had some degrees, but it was from schools I never heard of. All of this stuff to me was the antithesis of expertise. The crazy thing was that my changing perspective on her changed my perspective of Wall Street. After seven or eight years of working with her, I understood in a single moment that she had all this wisdom and humility, a level of attainment. I don’t want to make her sound like a guru, because she’s just a person – but she had done enough work that she saw the world from a different perspective. This woman, I don’t know how much she makes, she just gets by doing this spiritual teaching and living in this tiny place in Santa Monica. And all of a sudden I realized that she was more successful and more of an expert on what she did than my boss, who probably had a hundred million dollars in the bank and was one of the greatest traders on Wall Street. It was that moment I realized our Western system of beliefs about what is expertise and what is success was no longer my definition of those things.
“I want to make it clear that it wasn’t as if I had reached some level of enlightenment and was no longer troubled by money and success worries. It was quite the opposite. I was tortured. I was starting to believe this stuff, this way of looking at the world that was all about empathy and connection and spirituality. But I also had what had been the dominant perspective in my mind, which was all about money and success and impressing other people. I would vacillate between those two extremes. There was a part of me going, ‘Sam, are you sure you’re not making a huge mistake?’ Linda was saying your value is not based on how much money you make and that the question of how successful you were had to do with how authentic you were, whether you were living out your potential. I agreed with her intellectually, but was I really going to step off this path? Forgo millions and millions of dollars? Not just a few million this year, but millions every year? Give this up based on this loose collection of ideas, which I was just starting to comprehend?
“It was completely unsettling. Terrifying for me. How I handled it was very ungracefully. I picked a fight with my bosses. I felt that I had been underpaid that year. Three-point-six million wasn’t enough. So I demanded they pay me more. They said they would pay me more, but I had to agree to stay. I said, ’Nah, go screw yourselves.’ To be honest, it wasn’t one of my better moments. I look back at that time with a lot of empathy for myself, but also wishing I had it in me to be kind and to go in and say, ‘Look, I have a different view of the world and I want to pursue that and thank you for the opportunity.’ But at the time the only thing I could do was get pissed and start a fight.”
“A couple of years before I left Wall Street I read Taylor Branch’s three-part series on the civil rights movement (‘America in the King Years’). It wasn’t like I suddenly went, ‘Oh my god, Martin Luther King is morally superior to these hedge funds managers.’ I had admired Martin Luther King for a long time, but I came to understand that he had lived his life in service of something. And that service was what my counselor Linda had been talking about the whole time: about bringing people into the fold and erasing this false hierarchy we have created in our culture.
“It was like my eyes were opened all of a sudden—in really a terrible way for me. Because I saw that despite all the affectations I had about being a moral guy and the beliefs I had about what I was doing in the world, juxtaposed with the civil rights movement I came to see my life was completely, epically self-centered. That it was totally bogus, focused on competing with other Ivy League graduates to see who could make the most money without any thought to what the consequences of that attempt to accumulate money had on other people. But also with no sense of the effect that it had on ourselves, which in my experience was feeling completely empty and alone. The thing about being on Wall Street was that in order to prop up my own rationale about why a 25-year-old should make a million dollars, I created this elaborate belief system. I told myself, ‘Well, you work harder than other people. I’m a rags to riches story.’ All this stuff. In the span of a few weeks after reading Taylor Branch’s book I came to realize it was a load of crap. And that was the start of the process of getting ready to leave.”
“I think that much in the same way that I had a few experiences on Wall Street that punctuated my new awareness, two documentaries (‘A Place At the Table’ and ‘Forks Over Knives’) punctuated those moments where I really came to see things in a different way.
“After I left Wall Street, the three years before I started Groceryships was this arduous time. I had savings so I was okay financially. But I wasn’t earning any money. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a business card. People would ask me what I did and I would feel very embarrassed. So I went through this three-year period of putting into practice these beliefs that I had started to cultivate. Like, ‘Hey, your value doesn’t depend on what is on your business card.’ Well, I had to live that and learn that it was okay if I didn’t have a business card and was not making all this money. That was really hard.
“But as each year passed I would get farther away from that belief system that said success was above all and riches were the most important thing. Over time I came to be surrounded by a different sort of people who had a different set of values. I had left Wall Street feeling that I really didn’t have enough money and three years later I was thinking, ‘Hey, I have a lot of money. I definitely have enough and way more than these folks that we’d like to help.’ It wasn’t like I wanted to help them like some sort of savior coming in. I used to tell this rags to riches story about me, that I grew up living paycheck-to-paycheck and driving junky cars and living in rented houses. All that is true and at the same time it is completely discounting the massive advantages I had – like being born white, male, living in the suburbs, having college educated parents, going to a really good public school, all these things. Yeah, I worked hard and was talented, but there are people who are equally talented and hard working who live in South L.A. that are never going to make it to Wall Street and make a million dollars. I just started to realize I had spent so much time competing with people who had been advantaged like I had that maybe it’s better to spend time helping people who didn’t have the same advantages. Maybe there’s something in that. Not to compare myself to Martin Luther King, which would be absurd, but I started thinking maybe I should try to do something more in line with what his life was about.
“Watching ‘A Place at the Table’ was really the most impactful thing. That movie is about hunger, but it’s really about poverty and the fact that there are two Americas. One of those Americas is not worried about putting food on the table for their kids and the other America is. The movie followed these families. That mother was doing her damnedest to put food on the table for her kids and she was struggling. That was the moment I realized L.A. is this segregated city. You live in Westwood, like my wife and I do, and you only see people from Westwood. You might drive past places like South LA, but you never really stop in to them. That movie helped me understand that five miles away from my house people were having problems I had never faced. And those problems were elemental problems, like putting food on the table for their kids. I didn’t know what to do.
“It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘Okay, I left Wall Street, but I’m still not doing anything to help anybody.’ I was writing a book (his forthcoming memoir, ‘Gatsby, Interrupted’), but a book is not going to help these families that are struggling to put food on the table. So that created the seed of an idea that turned into Groceryships. It came from a friend of mine, Joe Spiccia, who said, ‘Why don’t you just buy them groceries?’ That was the moment.
“But like anything, that first idea had its problems. Like how are you going to find those families? And is that the answer? There are food stamps, so is buying groceries just like giving them food stamps? That’s when ‘Forks Over Knives’ (a 2011 documentary exploring the connection between diet and disease and obesity) came into play—this different understanding of nutrition. My relationship with food and health has evolved over the years and gets better and better. I wanted to bring in some of what I had learned, but also to provide through Groceryships a space for families to make this a focus, to provide a space to do that.”
“The way Father Greg Boyle (author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and the founder of the Homeboys Industries youth program) was most helpful was on an inspirational level. He’s a great example of how my heroes have changed over time. Ten years ago my heroes were people like Michael Milken, and Jamie Dimon, and John Paulson: people who had made billions of dollars and risen to the top of Wall Street. And now my hero is this guy Greg Boyle, who probably has less than $5000 in his bank account. He’s the most amazing man. Not the smartness in his head, although he’s got plenty of that, but really what’s in his heart, which is literally all about pulling the marginalized into the fold and showing them that they are valuable.
“When I went to talk to him about Groceryships, frankly I felt like a Wall Street poseur saying, ‘Okay, I’ve got this idea for a charity.’ But meeting with Father Boyle and saying, ‘This is what I want to do,’ well, I feel like he saw me. I believe he saw that I was authentic and genuine in what I wanted to do. The fact that he supported my idea—that changed everything. Him believing in me made me believe in myself.”
About the Author
Former Boston Herald columnist and editor Larry Katz has covered music and the arts for more than 30 years. Visit his website, thekatztapes.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.