“Anyone who tells you that money can’t buy happiness doesn’t have any.” When I first heard this mantra, I was a bond trader at an elite investment bank, and I nodded and smiled knowingly at the “wisdom” trickling off my former mentor’s lips. At the time, I admired traders’ unapologetic lust for dough. I too wanted the freedoms afforded by excessive disposable income—to buy whatever I wanted, to eat out whenever I pleased, and to set up billing auto-pay without having to think twice about the balance in my checking account.
It took me three years (2003-2006) to realize that a long-term career on Wall Street wasn’t for me. In 2010, Sam Polk, whom I met as a summer intern in 2002, arrived at a similar conclusion. But Polk, who was far more senior than I at time of defection, walked away from way more money—as in millions of dollars—and his current focus is, admittedly, way more charitable. In partnership with his wife, Dr. Kirsten Thompson, Polk launched Groceryships, a non-profit that provides grocery scholarships to families in need and educates people about nutrition in a hands-on manner along the way. Recently, Groceryships was nominated for one of Participant Media’s first annual Food, Inc. Pioneer Awards, the winners of which will be announced on Pivot TV at 9pm EST Sunday, November 24th, 2013.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the torment of deciding whether or not to leave a high-paying gig (neither Polk nor I expects an ounce of sympathy, I promise), your humanness means that you can probably relate to the quest for happiness—that elusive thing we all seem to covet. In a capitalist society, money is arguably inextricably linked to contentment, at least to a certain extent, since we all need it to survive. But as Malcolm Gladwell points out in David & Goliath, while we tend to assume that we can never have too much of a “good” thing, like money, the relationship between wealth and parenting follows the inverted U-curve model: More cash generally makes a positive difference, but only up to a certain point, after which it makes things worse. More money, more problems isn’t a new concept. Still, many of us get swept up in the ongoing, dual chase for riches and smiles.
Unlike finances, however, which are subject to indisputable calculations, happiness is a beautifully subjective thing we each get to define for ourselves. To avoid the clutches of the money-happiness conundrum, then, it might be wise to start by tweaking a definition.
Because nothing inspires quite like an actual example, I sat down with Polk to chat about his transformation—from Wall Streeter who defined happiness as a second home in Sun Valley to daily meditator who genuinely enjoys running a non-profit (and tapping his old finance buddies for funding!).
What used to constitute happiness for you?
Season tickets to the Lakers, for one. And a house in Sun Valley, naturally. A lot of people on Wall Street believe that money will make them important and that their jobs will make them important. Before Wall Street—before I got clean—there was a time when I thought that having enough cocaine or having a big drink would make me happy. Today, I still want things—the new iPhone, for instance—but I know I’m not going to be happier if and when I get a new gadget.
What led you to leave your Wall Street job? Was there an aha! moment, or was it a gradual realization?
For so long I was in the Wall Street mindset and it all seemed so normal. Then I sort of came to and realized that it was all messed up. There’s so much misogyny and self-righteousness. I think, often, about the popular trading floor trope that poor people are lazy. Now I see how little people have and how desperate people are for work. It was almost like Wall Street saw the world as if there were so many jobs out there, but that people were sitting on the couch drinking beer instead of seeking employment. A lot of Wall Streeters think that because they work hard, they deserve to be rich. Their mindset is without context.
Do you miss anything about the Street?
I miss the adrenaline of being on the right side of a position—that I was right! feeling of affirmation is powerful. Really, the things I miss about Wall Street are the same things I’ve missed about dessert since I started paying more attention to my diet. That bite of carrot cake tastes really good—and then it’s gone, and you’re back in the reality that the cake (or the life you’re living) isn’t doing yourself or anyone else any good.
When’s the last time you had carrot cake?
Actually, last night! [Laughs]. But it was vegan. And I felt bad afterwards.
Some of the senior people you knew on Wall Street have been instrumental in financing Groceryships. Could you have been happy continuing to work on Wall Street if you accumulated enough wealth to fund a bunch of meaningful projects?
No, because I’ve come to appreciate the actual work that goes into creating something. Sure, if I was still on Wall Street making loads of money, I could give it to other people to create things and manifest them into the world. But it’s that process of creation—the ability to start something and trust that it will actually be of service to the world—that is most important and rewarding. If I had stayed on Wall Street, I wouldn’t have been able to learn that. There are a lot of good people on Wall Street with good hearts who don’t know where to put their money, and I feel lucky to have contacts willing to support me. But the truth is that 95 percent of the money that these Wall Street folks earn goes to their bank accounts, and at least 50 percent should go elsewhere.
You’ve said that you’re currently working as hard as you did on Wall Street, but that it’s different because you love your work. I completely relate to that statement, but I don’t think I could have understood that right out of college. What advice do you have for 20-somethings trying to figure everything out?
In a weird way something in my life is at stake now. We haven’t technically helped any families yet through Groceryships and my book isn’t published yet, but what I hope is that somehow these things are actually a real contribution. When you’re on Wall Street, all that’s at stake is your ego. If you’re paid a low bonus, the biggest risk is that you run into another trader who was paid a few million bucks more than you and it hurts your pride—and that’s it.
I would tell 20-somethings: Give yourselves context. That’s the thing that I wish somebody had said to me. Graduating from Columbia effectively meant that I had the least chance on the planet of ending up starving. But I was terrified by the idea of not going to Wall Street because doing so was another badge. What I would say to a 20-year-old is that you already have this badge. You have freedom that 90 percent of the rest of the world would die to have. Something about you is special and if you have the platform to do what makes you happy, go do it. I promise you it isn’t being another Healthcare Analyst at Goldman Sachs.
You’ve quit drinking/drugs, smoking, Wall Street and, most recently, desserts. What’s next?
[Laughs] I don’t know! Every time I let go of one of those things, it was really tough at first. But then it was better.
What are your goals at this stage?
All I’m doing is planting seeds and trying to help as many people as I can. Maybe my book will be published one day. Maybe I’ll have a voice in the world. Maybe the documentary I’m working on will make a real impact. And maybe none of this will come to pass. My challenge is always to remember that what I have now is enough and it is perfect and it is beautiful, and if none of these things pan out, I am lucky and I am fine.
How do you maintain your new vision of happiness?
Sometimes I get caught up in thinking that Groceryships is going to be big or that my book is going to touch people, but that’s an ego thing—a way of being taken out of the moment. The connection two people can feel at a single time is important above all. Even if my book is a bestseller, it’s not going to accomplish that. Our society is structured so that those moments between people are not recognized as they should be. I try to remember that the person standing in front of me right now is most important—to be present and to turn my ego off so I can connect with that person.
Damn, I feel special!
[Laughs] As you should!