Monday, February 24, 2014

LIVE from…An Interview with Sam Polk

LOS ANGELES — By now, everyone knows who Sam Polk is. He was the "wolf" who was angry that his $3.6 million Wall Street bonus wasn't big enough. So he wrote in that polarizing New York Times Op-Ed, which was one of the most popular Opinion pieces so far this year. Just 30 years old when he got that last bonus, Sam was rich. So why on earth, at the height of his career, did he leave Wall Street behind?

This week, I talked to Sam Polk. I wanted to understand why this gifted derivatives trader, who had everything going for him, gave it all up to follow a dream.
Sam Polk on the trading floor (Pamela Van Reesema)

"I wasn't proud of my life, or myself," Sam wrote to me in an email.

While on Wall Street, Sam had been reading Taylor Branch's series on Martin Luther King and it struck him that someone without money or position could achieve what Martin Luther King achieved. "Every bit of authority and power he had came from who he was on the inside," Sam said by way of explaining his admiration for Dr. King. Further, Sam realized that where the 1960s civil rights activists were sacrificing themselves for the good of the system, Sam was just using the system to accumulate money to benefit himself. That's when he realized he wanted to do something with his life. "It wasn't about happiness," Sam adds. "It was about humanity, about contributing something, about not wasting my life."

Then Sam attended a volunteer event. The speaker at the event was a woman who ran a charter school for foster children, and she was passionate about what she did. It was obvious to Sam that she was proud of her life, and once again Sam drew comparisons, or rather contrasts, with his own.

Growing up, Sam was overweight, and he was teased for it. Classmates called him 'Fat Boy' and he and his twin brother 'Pork Brothers.' Struggles with weight and obesity strike a nerve with Sam, and so it was while he and his doctor-wife watched the 2011 Forks Over Knives documentary about plant-based eating that something began to change in him. As Sam explains it, the "eureka" moment was, at the time, more his wife's than his own. As a doctor, she'd been taught that medication, not necessarily nutrition, was the cure.

Sam talking to woman w/ baby (Angela Carrasco)
But still, it got Sam to thinking. And it got both Sam and his wife to change their eating habits. Later, as they watched the 2012 A Place at the Table film, about how to end hunger for the 50 million Americans who don't know where their next meal is coming from, Sam experienced his own 'eureka.' In fact, he burst into tears.

"Five miles from our tony suburb, people were starving," Sam writes. "And those same people were struggling with obesity. That's what broke me."

Sam decided to do something about it.

With a friend, Sam brainstormed how he might provide healthy groceries for just one family for a few months. "In my new plant-based mind," he writes in another fascinating piece in the Huffington Post, "I pictured bags of tomatoes and avocados, kale and yellow peaches." His friend, for his part, loved the idea. And as Sam put it, suddenly they were doing something; they weren't just talking about doing something.

One thing led to another, and although Sam wasn't always sure where ultimately the next steps would lead, he continued to take them anyway. He wrote down his ideas, and made contact with non-profits, doctors, chefs, filmmakers, a priest, and even a former gang member.  Now, this didn't all go smoothly at first. As Sam tells it, "That first year: the self-doubt, the cold calls to people, the vulnerability in sharing an idea — it was so hard." Inside Sam's head was the voice of his father, and that wasn't a good thing. The voice kept saying things like, "Who are you to try this?" and "What makes you so smart?"

At one point, Sam went to a party thrown in honor of a banker being promoted to junior partner at a firm Sam used to work for. "It felt like I got punched in the gut," Sam said. He didn't elaborate, but he didn't have to. It was clear that Sam was questioning his new belief system. He was worried he was being left behind. But Sam did have this to say: "The tough thing about defining a new idea of success that's different from the culture's is that it takes constant vigilance. If I'm not careful, my mind still runs to jealousy and the belief that success equals money, power, and prestige, instead of what I believe now — that success is about meaning and purpose and love."

Unlike me (at first anyway), Sam doesn't miss the banking world. "I don't miss it. I don't miss the people, or how I felt sitting at my desk. I don't miss hearing about people's net worth, or how big their bonus was. I don't miss a culture where the institution and bosses have all the power because they control the very thing — money — that everyone is after."

A month after Sam broke down in tears watching A Place at the Table, his non-profit Groceryships was born. Groceryships is what it sounds like: groceries meet scholarships. Groceryships' aim is to select a group of families and award them grocery scholarships, "groceryships," which will include not only money to buy healthful food, but will also provide nutrition education, support groups, and resources.

This week, Groceryships will debut their pilot program. As part of the pilot, each family they sponsor will receive $100 a week to buy healthy groceries. Are you interested in donating to Groceryships? If so, (Groceryships is a 501c3 registered charity) please visit their website or contact Sam Polk directly at

…And if you're following a dream too, write me! Let's tell your story and inspire others to do the same!

'LIVE from Mongolia,' the true story of what can happen when you pursue a lifelong dream, is available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. "This book is inspiring, and teaches all of us to put passion first, and happiness will follow." -60 Minutes' Ira Rosen. Join us here on this weekly blog series for features about people around the world following unusual dreams. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

LIVE from…A Dream Come True!

WELLINGTON — Remember Emma? The Kiwi dreamer with a passion for both writing and the environment? Well, as it turns out, Emma has some terrific news for us.

Emma has just begun writing a series for The Dominion Post, one of New Zealand's major daily newspapers. Her series is called "The Greenist" and in its debut, she talks about who she is: "A 34-year-old city chick with an office job and an [apartment in town]," which is to say, Emma isn't your usual beatnik environmentalist.
Emma Gilkison, who writes The Greenist for Stuff

In her The Greenist series, which will appear several times weekly, Emma will research the things we've all heard about but know nothing concrete about (species extinction, rising temperatures, and, as she writes, "Arctic glaciers melting like ice creams"). Helpfully, she'll put this stuff in the vernacular. But that's not all. For 2014, Emma has created a schedule of monthly challenges, beginning well, right now, of things that we can all do to make a real difference to the environment. Her challenges hit home because they are personal and accessible. For instance, in May, she'll try her best to go paperless, and then find a way to plant 100 trees. In July, she'll go plastic-free, and will somehow (I'm looking forward to seeing just how) avoid purchasing anything wrapped in plastic for the entire month. I bet Emma wishes she'd chosen a shorter month for that particular challenge!

So, who's up for joining Emma on this monthly adventure? You can join from anywhere in the world. How about you, my hometown Cincinnatians? And New Yorkers? And what about you, Mongolians and Mongol-philes? Chinese 朋友? English and Aussie and Kiwi mates? My e-pal in Bhutan? The more the merrier! Just don't toast your efforts with disposable champagne glasses! (Or disposable airag mugs, either.)

Click here to read The Greenist's Challenge Schedule, and make sure to read the very unusual challenge for March, as well as this month's challenge, which will be very interesting for those of you who live in the suburbs. Come one, come all! See you there!

The Greenist will appear several times weekly. Click the link to read and follow Emma Gilkison's series.

'LIVE from Mongolia,' the true story of what can happen when you follow a lifelong dream, is available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. "This book is inspiring, and teaches all of us to put passion first, and happiness will follow…" 
-60 Minutes' Ira Rosen

Thursday, February 13, 2014

LIVE from Park Slope, Brooklyn!

BROOKLYN, NY — Andrea Reese has spent a lifetime realizing not just one dream, but several. It all started with the family car. She was just a kid when she drew all over it, as well as her homework assignments and tests and—the rather more obvious—art paper she’d been given. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, certainly not in young Andrea’s, that one day she’d become an artist.
Andrea Reese in action (Photo by Daniela Reinsch)

“I want to make the invisible visible,” Andrea, a Brooklyn resident, told me by email. “Growing up, for a number of reasons, I often felt unappreciated and invisible.”

At first, this desire for visibility was a personal quest. As a teenager, Andrea studied singing and acting, and she spent nearly two decades onstage, singing opera and performing as a stage and film actress. She even wrote her own critically acclaimed one-woman show, Cirque Jacqueline, a play about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

But, over time, as Andrea and her art evolved, she began to realize that performance art was no longer her dream. “Looking back,” she explained, “I think the performing bug had to do with a sadness I had inside, and a desire to have people notice me and cheer me on.” When Andrea reached her forties, her original passion returned, her passion for the visual arts. But the passion wasn’t just professional; it was also deeply personal.
Capturing the moment (Photo Andrea Reese)

While Andrea began to explore the newest iteration of her dream in the visual world, she also began to realize something about herself: she wanted her intimate relationships to be with women instead of men.

I met Andrea around the time she was experiencing this duality of awakenings. At the time, I was on a journey of my own, the one that would take me out of banking to follow my dream into news anchoring in Mongolia. One day, not long after I’d quit Wall Street and booked my ticket to Ulaanbaatar, Andrea told me to make a wish, that “something good might happen.” Well, something did, for both of us. 

The next time I saw Andrea, she was getting married to Alice at a beautiful and soulful ceremony in Park Slope. And, she had also discovered that every time she lifted a camera and looked through it, she “went into an altered place of pure inspiration and deep happiness she’d never felt before.”

Andrea had fallen in love all over again. She’d rediscovered her dream through photography, and developed it through stunning and emotionally raw portraiture. Walking up to twenty miles a day through the streets of New York City, she could be seen snapping photos of the subjects she’s most passion about: the otherwise invisible.

Andrea was lucky in a way that makes her unique amongst absolutely everyone I’ve ever interviewed about dreams. From North Korea to New York, I don’t think I’ve yet met anyone who hasn’t struggled with the idea of giving up financial security to pursue their dreams. I haven’t met anyone who willingly accepted, at such a young age, having ‘less.’

Andrea "shooting" a peacock (Photo by Missy Cohen)

Until now.

When I asked Andrea about what she had to give up in order to pursue her passion, her dream, her art, she told me that she knew even as a kid she wanted to be an artist, that she never wanted to grow up to be rich, or even live in a house. What she wanted was to be an artist. For Andrea, she was always on the path of her dream. 

For more of Andrea's art, or to book her for a shoot, visit her at

Patricia Sexton is the author of 'LIVE from Mongolia,' the true story of what happens when you follow a lifelong dream. It's available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

LIVE from…The Environment!

WELLINGTON — Emma's dream is to be a writer. Typically, someone who dreams of being a writer embarks upon a journey to get a book published. Emma, a 35-year-old New Zealander, has indeed been down that road. But there's something else: Emma's dream has taken a sharp turn from what she expected.

When Emma was 16, she was invited to represent her school at an environmental conference in Hawaii. She'd been hearing about big issues, things like "deforestation" and "losing the Amazon" and, most worrisome for Kiwis like Emma, "ozone depletion." Ozone depletion is a particularly pressing issue in New Zealand, because there's an actual hole where the protective ozone layer ought to to be. Trust me, if you lived beneath a gap in the ozone layer, you'd care too.

Well, Emma returned from the environmental conference thinking that, "It just all seemed stupid. It's not just about 'saving the planet.' It's about saving the human species!" She felt like these issues should be important to everyone, that they should be front page news. So Emma started a youth group of like-minded students who cared about the future of our planet. But, she was just 16 and as she put it, "It all fizzled fast." Life got in the way. Emma got distracted. In fact, Emma got distracted for nearly 20 years.

And that's familiar, isn't it? Don't we all get distracted? Isn't it a lot easier to pursue your dream tomorrow than it is to take even a single step in its direction today?

Recently, Emma began to do some thinking about all this. Not about the environment, not at first anyway. At first, she began to think about her original dream to become a career writer. Her dream had begun to feel like it was fading, and she'd had some dark times with it. But then Emma began to wonder if her dream wasn't tangled up in ego, if maybe she was pursuing it just to prove something to the world. As a teenager, Emma had even gone so far as to fantasize prizes she would win in writing competitions she would enter. "Dreams and ambitions driven by those kinds of aims aren't going to make you happy," she said to me today as we sat in a Wellington cafe.

So how does someone force the evolution of a dream that isn't quite working out as planned? How does someone move forward when the dream is dragging its feet? Well, for Emma, she would reignite an old passion, which would give her old dream to write a very timely purpose. This process, this slight shift, would create an entirely new dream.

Emma asked herself this: "What do I want to write about that I care about?" And with that, she began to tap once again into her passion for the environment. Motivated by curiosity, Emma did some digging. She uncovered some things she simply could not overlook, like the fact that a very critical rung on our food chain is being killed off by warmer waters. Or the fact that our planet may lose a quarter of its animal species by the year 2050. This scares her the most. Once again, Emma discovered her old passion for the environment. And suddenly, she realized that it was this she would write about.

But where? And who will care about it? The issues Emma hopes to tackle are enormous and theoretical. They feel un-tackle-able. The environment feels like somebody else's problem. How can she inspire other people about an issue that isn't necessarily important to them? Not only that, Emma will be facing tough opponents: industry, government, ambivalence.

Emma knows she's facing an uphill battle. In fact, she seems to be quite looking forward to it and to the challenge of writing about it. She told me that if she gets just five people around the world to change their environmentally-unfriendly habits…that that would be enough for her. (Yeah, I asked the same question: 'Just five?' And Emma smiled as if she knew, or maybe hoped, her impact will be far greater. Something tells me it will.)

"In thirty years' time," Emma explained to me, "I imagined myself having a conversation with my granddaughter. I didn't want to her to ask me what I'd done about global warming and tell her that I'd been too distracted to care."

*Disclosure: I happen to know that something very big is brewing for Emma and her new dream. So, what you just read in this week's dream-following episode will be followed up soon by a dream-come-true story. Fingers crossed for Emma and her new dream. See you next week! (And if you're following a dream, write me! I'd love to hear from you!)

LIVE from Mongolia, the book, is the true story of what can happen when you follow your wildest dream. It's available on Amazon (both hardcover and Kindle), in Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. "Light, humorous, and relentlessly optimistic." -Publishers Weekly review of LIVE from Mongolia