Jan. 31, 2014 at 10:11 AM ET
Sex, drugs and the rapacious accumulation of wealth is the storyline of Martin Scorsese’s raucous film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” nominated for five Academy Awards.
Sam Polk lived the life of the pack: huge bonuses, fine restaurants, impossible-to-get NBA tickets. But when he realized his love of money had become an addiction, he walked away from Wall Street.
Polk created quite a stir earlier this month when the New York Times published his essay, “For the Love of Money,” in which the former hedge-fund trader detailed his craving to make more and more, how it changed his life and what he finally did about it.
“In my last year on Wall Street, my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough,” he wrote
Polk grew up in Glendale, Calif. His father sold kitchen cabinets, among other jobs. His mother was a nurse practitioner.
“My dad really believed that money was the answer to all his problems,” Polk said in a recent interview with NBC News. “And from a very early age, I heard that sort of mantra.”
He explained, “I wanted to be rich since I was 12.” His younger years were not easy, he said. He had been overweight and suffered a bad self-image.
Polk began at Columbia University in 1997, and was a wrestler. He was also a serious drinker, pot smoker and user of cocaine, Ritalin and ecstasy. He was suspended from Columbia for an on-campus burglary, and was later arrested twice.
At the age of 22, Polk was a summer intern at Credit Suisse First Boston. He wrote that he lied his way into the firm by “omitting my transgressions from my resume.”
After graduating in 2002, he began working his way up the Wall Street ladder. He says the drinking and drugs were behind him, but he realized he had become addicted to money. An ex-girlfriend and a therapist helped him reach that conclusion.
“I would think about my bonus every day,” Polk said. “Every day for a year, I would think: what is it gonna be? Who’s gonna get paid more than me? Am I gonna get paid more than this guy?”
By 2010, he realized his relationship to money had spiraled out of control. Despite the millions in bonuses he was being offered, he was terrified of running out of money. He also knew that he was making in a single year more than his mother had made her whole life. “I knew that wasn’t fair, that wasn’t right,” he said.
He left his job — left Wall Street entirely -- got married, and spoke at jails and juvenile detention centers about getting sober.
And four years after walking out, the thrill of making money has been replaced by the excitement of helping others. Last year, he started a nonprofit called Groceryships, which provides scholarships for food. For six months, families facing poverty and obesity will learn about nutrition, healthy shopping and cooking, and exercise. In February, pilot programs are scheduled to begin in Los Angeles, where Polk is based, and then later in New York City.
Polk is taking no salary to run Groceryships, and he said if his essay becomes a published book, he will give 25 percent of the profits to his new philanthropy.
“I’m all in favor of people having success and living out the American Dream,” Polk says. “I just think that, for me, somewhere along the way I forgot that the American Dream had to do with balance.”