A few weeks back, 3 different acquaintances emailed me Sam Polk’s New York Times article “For The Love Of Money”. They told me that if I did nothing else that day, I should read the post. I did read it and it blew me away. As it turns out, my pals weren’t the only ones shaken up by his article. To date, it is the most tweeted article that has ever been published by the New York Times. As soon as I read the piece, I understood what the hubbub was all about.
At the age of 30, Sam chucked a cushy job as a trader on Wall Street . At the time he was earning close to $4 million a year and he had unlimited upside potential. But it was literally killing him. Once he realized that, he left it all to start the nonprofit organization Groceryships.
This is only part of Sam’s fascinating story – but it was more than enough to make me reach out to him. He was gracious enough to accept my invitation for a conversation. We talked about Wall Street, wealth addiction and how he found sobriety. Here’s what I learned.
How He Got Hooked On Money
Sam was brought up thinking that money was the solution to almost any problem. And (more important) that the lack of money was the cause of all problems. He grew up in the suburbs. But he told me that his father and mother lived in the future. They thought life would be good one day once they strike it rich.
But that focus on the future resulted in constant bickering about money. There was always pressure, fear and anger in the house. That resonated with me.
When a kid gets bombarded with negative messages like that, it leaves a mark. Given that environment, it was almost inevitable that Sam would grow up to be a wealth addict.
What is a Wealth Addict?
Sam told me that a wealth addict’s organizing principle is that he desperately needs to accumulate more wealth. This is no different from a drug addict who always needs another fix. There is no such thing as “enough” – only “more”.
Sam was offered a $3.6 million dollar bonus in his final year on the Street but it wasn’t big enough for him. This was a man who had no debt, no family and no philanthropic interests at the time. He couldn’t have spent that money if he was forced to. Why did he need more? Because he was an addict.
What Fuels Wealth Addiction?
Sam explained that fear is the primary driver of wealth addiction. As a kid he learned that the only way to be a worthwhile person was to have more money. As a result, he was scared to death of failure. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the life he had growing up.
Even though he “made it” financially, that irrational fear pushed him further and further until he hit a wall. He realized that his life was miserable and empty. He was unhappy and jealous because others were earning more. He never stopped to be grateful for all he had.
What Caused Sam To Change?
During the 2008 financial crisis, most everyone on Wall Street was in a hysterical panic. Sam said that the people he looked up to, the guys pulling down over $100 million a year, lost fortunes. On top of that, stalwart financial firms were crashing right and left. He realized then that maybe his heroes weren’t as smart and powerful as he thought they were.
During the crisis, he went to a bank to withdraw $7,000 in cash just in case. He was worried sick even though he had over a million dollars on deposit in that bank. But during that visit, he had an epiphany. He realized that he might lose money but ultimately he’d be fine.
Then he thought about the teller who helped him with the withdrawal. He realized that she could lose her job and maybe her home. He thought about all the havoc that might cause her. And once he started thinking about other people, he realized that his wealth addiction had bankrupted his life.
His path to recovery didn’t begin in a flash. It took time. But soon he realized that his fear was an “inside job”. He knew that no amount of money could make life safe until he did the work and dealt with his true feelings.
Once he isolated his fear he realized that from a logical standpoint, he had enough and he could quit his job if he wanted. As a result, that’s what he did.
The Next Phase
After taking several years to write his book (due out shortly) Sam continued working his recovery from wealth addiction. He explained that the cornerstone of recovery (and a full life) is service to other people. Being helpful to others gets us out of our heads. It’s the most important step to take to remain sober according to Sam.
Sam and his wife Kristen decided to help others take better care of themselves by eating right. they transformed their own lives by starting to eat healthier and they wanted to “share the wealth”. They did some digging and came up with information that was hard to reconcile.
On the one hand, we live in an obese nation. According to Sam, 70% of Americans are overweight. At the same time, 50 million Americans go to sleep hungry each day. That’s because the people who have the least resources opt for the cheapest food and that often means processed/fast food. That kind of diet leads to hungry, poor, obese and unhappy people.
Sam and Kirsten understood that a lot of children face life with a great deal of food insecurity and shame and the couple especially wanted to change that. As a result, they created the nonprofit Groceryships.
What Is Groceryships?
This is a movement and organization. Groceryships transform lives one family at a time. They do this by providing money for healthy food choices for families in need. The family participates in the program for 6 months. In order to participate the family must earn less than $40,000 a year and have 3 or fewer children.
What I found especially cool about Groceryships was that this isn’t just a handout or soup kitchen. In order to obtain the subsidies, the families must attend weekly meetings. These meetings help educate people about nutrition and how to eat well. But they also deal with the emotional and spiritual principals around food and eating. Sam told me that the magic really happens during the meetings because that’s where people get in touch with what drives their eating behaviors. Once they understand the drivers, it’s easier to make lasting changes.
I’m a Sam Polk fan. I’m going to make a contribution to Grocerships and I’m going to buy his book. I hope you do too. He’s a good egg who wants to create more harmony and joy in the world rather than support the meaningless chaos of wealth addiction.
I believe we can all learn from Sam. Here’s how:
a. Take a look at your life. What part of your behavior creates more peace of mind? What part of your life creates more chaos? Be honest.
b. What do you need to change to have the life you want? (Hint – it ain’t having more money.)
c. When are you going to start having the life you want?
d. Who do you need on your team to support you?
What else do you take away from Sam’s story?
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