Living the Dream: Wall Street Defector Sam Polk

by Edna Rienzi

Sam  Polk

At age 30, Sam Polk walked away from Wall Street, where he was a head trader at one of the world's largest hedge funds. He was more "successful" than he'd thought possible, but he felt empty and unfulfilled. In 2010, Sam quit his job and moved to L.A., where he has since spent his time working with homeless youth, teaching writing to foster kids, speaking in jails and detention centers, and writing a book about his experiences.

Sam and his wife recently started a nonprofit, Groceryships ("scholarships for groceries"), that serves to help impoverished families who are food insecure and struggling with health issues.

What does “the good life” mean to you? And how did you come to this vision?

My dad was a Willy Loman-type, a salesman always seeking the big score. He often talked about how much better our life would be if we had a million dollars. I learned some pretty deep lessons from him. Not only how much better life would be if we were rich, but also how painful and scary it was to not be rich. My dad thought that being rich meant you were important, and to not be rich was to be a failure.

I took on those beliefs. When I was 12, a neighbor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I wanted to be rich. For years, my focus was money. In the sixth grade, I sold newspapers door-to-door. In high school, I participated in a multi-level-marketing scheme, trying to get all my friends to switch to Excel long-distance. In college, I worked for several start-up Internet companies, hoping to strike it big with stock options. After college, I went to Wall Street.

On Wall Street, it’s not uncommon for a 25 year-old to earn a million dollars a year. As I started to make a lot of money at a young age, I began to see that what I'd been taught wasn't true. I thought money would make me happy, safe, and important. Instead, I felt empty. For several years, I thought I just hadn’t made enough money. I was working with a counselor during those years, and through my work with her, I started to see that I had it wrong. Happiness and fulfillment came from my relationships with the people I love, and from fully expressing myself in the world.

Right when I received the biggest bonus of my life, I walked away from Wall Street, even though leaving meant I had to leave half that bonus on the table. That was three years ago, and since then I’ve had an incredible adventure.

What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?

Two things: my wife and my work. I’m married to the most unbelievable woman. She challenges me and loves me, and it’s easily the most rewarding part of my life.

I’m also working on several projects—a book, a documentary, a startup tech company, and a non-profit called Groceryships. I write every morning. I’m working as hard as I did my last few years on Wall Street, but it’s completely different. I love it. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I feel completely engaged in my life. I’m motivated not so much by rewards as by the thrill of manifesting my ideas into the world. I have these moments where I literally laugh out loud about how engaged I am in my life, how lucky I feel to be alive. I am incredibly grateful for the teachers—Linda Redford, Michael Meyer—that have helped me get to where I am.

Is there anything at all about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?

My counselor urges me to wake up each morning and compete with myself to be a better person than I was the day before. I try to do that, and often I fail. I want to be a better husband, brother, son, friend, and student.

Sam Polk

Tell us a little about the work you do.

My passion right now is the non-profit my wife and I recently started called Groceryships ("scholarships for groceries"). Our mission is to help impoverished families who are food insecure and struggling with health issues by awarding them “Groceryships,” which consist of a six-month program where families receive financial help, weekly nutrition classes, emotional support groups, cooking classes, guided shopping trips, and resources like food journals, food plans, exercise strategies, healthy cooking magazines, kids nutrition workbooks, a Vitamix, etc. We also supplement their time in class with homework that includes documentaries on healthy eating like Hungry For ChangeFood Inc., and Forks Over Knives. Families’ health metrics are tracked and measured, and there are strong incentives to reach the goals we co-create with them.

We are just starting out—our two pilot programs (through Homeboy Industries and L.A.’s Promise) start in the fall. We’ve raised $50,000 in funding. Our thought is that not only is it a travesty that there are so many hungry people (kids!) in America, but that even with available food, it’s particularly hard for these folks to adopt a healthy lifestyle. So we've created a comprehensive program to give them the structure, support, and financial breathing room to allow them enough space to do the hard work of getting healthy.

Describe some ways that you are involved in your community.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been going into jails, juvenile detention centers, and psych wards around Los Angeles to talk about getting sober from drugs/alcohol and living a life of integrity. It’s been a humbling experience. Every time I go into a jail, I’m scared. The prisoners look scary, the guards look mean, and it’s shocking to see people living in cages, with almost no sunlight. After an hour with the prisoners, I see that they’re not as scary as I thought, that they’re just people. And then when I leave I feel so grateful for everything I have. I got into some pretty serious trouble as a kid, and it was just a matter of grace that I didn’t end up where they are.

What’s really shocking is the juvenile detention centers. Some of them are actually pretty nice—on tracts of land in the hills of Malibu. Still, to see a 15 year-old is to see a child, and to see these kids locked up is to know that something is wrong with our system. First we fail these kids, and then we punish them for it.

For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges and, if so, how do you deal with them.

When I left Wall Street, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t start working on a book for six months, and my wife and I didn’t start Groceryships for nearly three years. For a long time, when people asked me what I did, I didn’t have an answer. I became acutely aware of how much our culture defines us by what we do.

I don’t totally disagree with that—it seems a fair question to ask someone you’ve just met what they do with the majority of their time. It’s just that, when you are in-between things, it makes for a pretty uncomfortable discussion. Most of the uncomfortability came from me. Even though I’d chosen to leave Wall Street, to be unemployed, I still felt embarrassed about it. That’s how deep the lessons of my dad and our culture go. It was very hard to let go of that.

Please describe any new skills or hobbies that you’re really excited about or that you would love to learn if you had the time and resources.

Let’s see. I’ve always read a lot of books, and I keep all the ones I read, so over time my library has grown. It’s so interesting to see the history of what I’ve been interested in over time. I have bookcases full of books on finance/investing, sections on spirituality and psychology. I now have a shelf full of memoirs and books on writing that I read while writing my own book. And now I have this growing collection of books about diet, health, and the food system in America, which I’m reading for Groceryships. So I guess I’m excited to see what I’ll be interested in next, what new bookshelf in my library I’ll start filling.

I'm re-reading Greg Boyle's (the founder of Homeboy Industries) book Tattoos on The Heart, and really what I'd like to learn is how to live like he does, completely from the heart, filled with respect and gratitude for every person he meets, no matter how marginalized they are.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

 “Hold on to her.”

New Dream's "Living the Dream" series profiles folks from around the world who are living lives focused on “more of what matters.” If you or someone you know is living the New Dream, please contact us—we're looking for inspiring stories to share!