By Amy Dresner
Sam Polk, author of the memoir For the Love of Money, on wealth addiction, the Wall Street narrative, and making his life about contributing instead of accumulating.
Ahh Wall Street. The money, the hustle, the power, the drinking, the climb. Yearly bonuses that are more than your whole family have made in their entire lives. Big trades. Bigger trades. Promotions. It all sounds like an adrenaline-fueled rocket to your dream life, right? Or is it a shallow, exhausting StairMaster powered by greed and wealth addiction? Or both?
Sam Polk was already a recovering bulimic-drug-addict-alcoholic when he got into trading. But driven by the baggage of a poor, dysfunctional upbringing and the unflappable obsession that only addicts have, by 30 Polk was a senior trader at one of the biggest hedge funds in Manhattan. On the cusp of Wall Street superstardom, he walked away from it all. For the Love of Money is his newly released memoir, chronicling the journey of his troubled youth and his struggle with addiction, to what he thought would be the pinnacle of “success.” Ultimately, it’s a story of a life-altering epiphany that led to his healing and transformation.
The Fix sat down with Polk to talk about addiction, recovery and money.
You write, “I still carried with me the propensity to self-destruct.” You’ve put down drugs, alcohol, wealth, porn, binge eating. Do you still feel this way and if so, how does it manifest now?
Not really. Although my favorite meal is still a dozen donuts, and some privacy.
You actually speak about AA meetings and being sober. I found that very refreshing. What’s your take on “anonymity”?
I think everyone has a right to their own story, and that AA was invented at a time where addiction was taboo. Now it’s commonplace.
Do you think there should be a specific 12-step program for wealth addiction, or is it too ingrained in modern culture and accepted as a sign of success to be pathologized?
Wealth addiction was less a personal diagnosis than a cultural metaphor. As your question rightly suggests, it is too ingrained in modern culture to be pathologized. In many ways, it’s what our country is built around.
In your opinion, is there a difference between wealth addiction and just plain old greed? Or, say, money hoarding?
I would say the difference is that the term “wealth addiction” seeks to understand and explain, where the term “greed” seeks to judge and distance. That’s what I mean about a cultural metaphor. People love to judge Wall Street for being greedy, but the American Dream—which once was about becoming self-reliant and finding a place for yourself in the world—has become about accumulating and hoarding ungodly sums of money.
Any backlash from Wall Street, your former cronies, or anybody?
Heck yes! Every time I publish an op-ed or a book, I can feel Wall Street groan. Although, in fairness to them, as I mentioned earlier, they are often recipients of harsh judgment from people who might benefit from reading the biblical verse “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…”
You are pretty harsh about your father in the book. Has he read it? Have you spoken with him since the book’s publication?
I don’t know if he’s read it, and I haven’t spoken with him since the book came out.
There’s a fundamental principle in economics that applies to things like food, clothing, etc.—which is that the more you have, the less you value it. However, Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and his colleagues found that the more money people make, the more they value it—specifically because “it reflects their worth or mastery.” Thoughts?
Totally agree. People think money is about what you can buy. But it’s about so much more—freedom from worry, for one. And for many, it becomes a reflection of their worth as a person, and their place in the perceived hierarchy of the world. And that’s what I wanted to walk away from—the idea that the world is a hierarchy.
The way you describe wealth addiction sounds like a substance addiction, in that you can never have enough. But it also sounds like a process addiction (like gambling), in that a big part of the high is the process and accumulation. Is it both? Neither?
It’s a cultural metaphor. In the same way that drug addicts are so blinded by their own need that they can’t see the pain they are causing their families, our culture of wealth addiction leads to a world of crazy inequality, global warming, obesity, etc. And in the same way that you can never reason with an active alcoholic who has very strong defense mechanisms and ability to rationalize, you can’t reason with wealth addicts either. That’s why, for example, you get some billionaires comparing themselves with European Jews in the 1940s, in terms of persecution. There is no sense of perspective when it comes to addiction.
There’s that general thinking that money (and fame) don’t change you. They just make you more of who you really are, i.e. magnify your character defects. Does money and/or power fundamentally change a person?
Nothing smart to say here.
I love how you admitted to still having fantasies that wealth could fix things. It sounds so much like drug/alcohol sobriety. Even though I know the drugs won’t fix anything, I still have urges or using dreams or moments where I think, if only I could. Why do you think we hold onto these curative fantasies?
Great question, and glad you liked that. Yeah…the overriding narrative of people who leave Wall Street is, “I left, and I’m so much happier.” And every time I read that, I shake my head. Because it’s so much more complex than that. Wall Street was exciting, and the money was fantastic. And what’s different about wealth addiction than, say, drug addiction, is that in drug addiction you get arrested, and with wealth addiction you get articles written about you in Fortune. The reasons I walked away were not that the work was too hard, or it was too intense. I walked away because I no longer wanted to stand where I was standing in the world. I wanted my life to be about contributing, instead of accumulating.
You write, “I missed drinking, not just the joyful release of a night out, where hours flew by in a way they never did while sober, but also the comfort that came from knowing I could, with the crack of a beer can, escape from my mind.” Do you still have these escapist fantasies and if so, what do you do?
Heck yes! Now I escape through Game of Thrones and chocolate chip cookies. It’s why I always seem to be about 10 pounds heavier than I’d like to be!
Both you and your twin brother got sober at the same time. I believe your younger brother got sober as well. You talk a lot about childhood wounds in the book that led you to try and numb and fill that inner void with food, drugs or sex. Do you think addiction is genetic, environmental, or both?
I am sure there is some hereditary component, and I also think you can create an addict. If you physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse a kid for long enough, they will seek to numb that pain somehow. I think that calling alcoholism or addiction purely genetic prevents people from understanding and healing some of the trauma behind their addictive tendencies.
Tell us what you’ve been doing since you left Wall Street. Any more books or writing projects in the future?
Oh I’m sure I’ve got some more op-eds and books inside me. But what I’m currently focused on are the two organizations I’ve either founded or co-founded: Groceryships & Everytable.
Groceryships is an LA nonprofit that works at the intersection of poverty and food-related health issues like obesity and diabetes. Essentially, we help families living in food deserts get themselves and their families healthy through a program that includes nutrition education, weekly deliveries of produce, cooking classes and emotional support groups.
Everytable was an idea born out of our work at Groceryships. Many of the Groceryships moms had several kids and multiple jobs, and we kept hearing that while they appreciated all of the fresh produce we were bringing to them, they’re all busy and often have to buy food on the go—and in South LA, that means unhealthy and processed fast food. We saw this as an opportunity to provide these moms with a new healthy and affordable alternative.
Together with my business partner, David Foster, we designed Everytable to offer nutritious meals through convenient grab-and-go locations, for less. With a low-cost, variable pricing business model, we’re able to make healthy food available to all by pricing meals according to the neighborhood served. So while prices differ from location to location for the same dishes, the food is always affordable for local customers. We’re so excited to be creating a community that, together, is democratizing healthy food. Our first location opened last month, and we’ll continue to grow with new locations in both the LA region and beyond.