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. 

1 comment:

fingers said...

good for you, Sam Polk !!!
it's little early to say whether you're truly a world-class philanthropist yet or just another wealthy dilettante looking to assuage the guilt their easy, possibly ill-gotten gains have brought them...but good on you for having a go...
i think the groceryship is a wonderful idea; of course many critics with far less inclination to help their fellow man will say that what you're doing is tantamount to social engineering...deciding how and what people should eat...but these are the same shit-bags who grumble about starving kids in Africa while they walk their giant protein-gobbling dog in the park...presumably a symbol of their love for all living things ?
good luck with the scheme, dude...