By 30 years old, Sam Polk had made more than $5 million in bonuses alone during eight years working on Wall Street. As a trader, he was living it up in Manhattan by the age of 25, able to count on a cash flow and perks that would be the envy of many. "It was an easy thing to go to a World Series game, which for a lot of people was like a dream," he tells us in the accompanying video as an example. Couple the perks with the seven-figure bonuses he was on track to earn and Polk had "a tremendous feeling of importance and power especially as a 25-year-old kid."
But at 30, he abruptly decided to leave the Street. Despite the money Polk had been making, over the years he found himself nagged by envy. In a New York Times op-ed, he describes working at bulge-bracket firms like Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) early in his career, on trading desks where everyone sits together and perspective goes out the door -- when you sit next to someone making $10 million, your $1 to $2 million compensation doesn't look so great.
He went on to work at a hedge fund, and his obsession with money only got worse.
He writes in the NY Times: Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power — power beyond getting a table at Le Bernardin. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty.
Polk describes getting angry over a $3.6 million bonus because it wasn’t big enough.
He came to believe that he personally had developed a wealth addiction.
"One of the things I came to realize was I had been using money as this thing that would quell all my fears," he explains. "So I had this belief that maybe some day I would get enough money that I would no longer be scared ... I would feel successful. And one of the things I learned on Wall Street was no matter how much money I made, the money was never going to do it.
In the end, he writes that it was observing his "absurdly" wealthy bosses that helped him realize the limits of unlimited money:
I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.” I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.
Polk says wealth addiction was a problem afflicting more on Wall Street than just him alone.
He believes many people may look at inequality statistics and wonder, "How is it that folks at the top that are making so much money are still focused on accumulating more for themselves?"
"I just know from my experience that I still felt like I didn't have enough, and I was so distorted about my wealth compared to the rest of the world -- I think that is a problem on a bigger scale," he says.
Now at 34, Polk runs a nonprofit called Groceryships, which he founded. It helps low-income families struggling with obesity to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods in their diets.
After writing about his story, he has college students reaching out for guidance. They want careers where they can support their family and achieve prestige, but where they can also derive meaning. What's his advice?
"I get it, it is a tough spot -- money has helped me [in the past] and it definitely helps me today," he says. "At the same time, I was on a train that a lot of people stay on their whole lives, which is saying 'one day I'll have enough'...for me one of the benefits of working with such wealthy people was that I just saw that it was never going to happen."
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