TODAY   |  January 31, 2014

Former hedge-fund manager: money ‘was an addiction’

Sam Polk tells NBC’s Joe Fryer about how his life spiraled out of control after landing on Wall Street at age 22. He walked away from his multi-million-dollar job, saying, “it was one of the hardest things” he ever did, and started a non-profit that gives families scholarships for food.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> meanwhile, would you be able to walk away from a job that paid you millions of dollars if you felt the drive for money was harming you. "the new york times" met a man who called the life he abannened.

>> reporter: the kos scar nominated film the wolf of wall street , tells the story of sex, drugs and money. lots of money.

>> at the tender age of 22 i moved to the only place that could fit my high-minded ambition.

>> reporter: this is a similarly alarming story.

>> i wanted a billion dollars.

>> reporter: he was also 22 when he went to wall street to satisfy his money-fueled ambition.

>> i would think about my bonus every day. every day for a year i would think about what is it going to be, how much is it going to be, who's going to get paid more than me, am i going to be paid more than this guy.

>> reporter: he recently shared his story with the "new york times," an essay he only wishes co-have read when his life started spiraling out of control as a student at columbia university .

>> i started drinking. i started doing a lot of drugs. i had had this sort of chip on my shoulder.

>> you were even suspended at one point.

>> yeah, i was suspended for burglary.

>> reporter: polk beat his addiction to drugs and drinking but another craving soon took over, as he rose through the ranks at a big bank, then an elite hedge fund . he wanted more money. lots of money.

>> money wasn't actually about the things that you could buy. it was sort of a way of keeping score.

>> for you, was it an addiction?

>> i mean it was absolutely an addiction. in my last year on wall street , my bonus was $3.6 million. and i was angry because it wasn't big enough.

>> i remember kind of thinking like, no, don't do that! you know, just leave. i don't want you to stay here another year.

>> reporter: with help from his girlfriend, now-wife kirstin thompson , polk began to realize his latest addiction was tearing him up inside.

>> i made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. i knew that wasn't fair. that wasn't right.

>> reporter: so at the age of 30, he walked away from it all.

>> it was one of the hardest things that i ever did.

>> i'm so proud of him. so proud of him. i think it took a ton of courage.

>> i was lucky.

>> reporter: four years later the thrill ofmakering money is now replaced by the thrill of serving others.

>> it's really hard to stay on a healthy diet .

>> reporter: he's started a non-profit called groceryships, which gives families scholarships for healthy food.

>> vegetables and fruit shakes and salads. that may not be the most delicious things in the world but they definitely fill you up.

>> reporter: the goal is to help families make better choices.

>> do i get the chips that's $1 or do i get the tomatoes that's $2.99 a pound?

>> i guess i just don't think it's right in such a rich country that there are so many people that are poor and hungry and i'd rather spend my time working with them than trying to make more money for myself.

>> reporter: and now another chapter. polk and his wife are expecting their first child. no longer a wolf on wall street , he aims to be a sheep who has shed his wolf's clothing. for "today," joe fryar, nbc news, los angeles .

>> great example.

>> it is an interesting essay if you haven't had a chance to read it. real thought provoking.