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Sam Polk: The Wall Street Trader Who Quit Over a $3.6 Million Bonus


In 2014, a man named Sam Polk became known to the public by penning a couple of New York Times op-eds, which described his life as a successful Wall Street trader as well as some of the depths to which he had sunk over the course of his career. One incident that stood out was his explosion at his boss upon being told that he would receive a $3.6 million bonus for the year, which he believed was not enough at the time in spite of the fact that he had no children, no outstanding loans, and no other obligations whatsoever. As a result, even if they are not familiar with Sam Polk, there are a lot of people out there who might recognize him as the Wall Street trader who turned up his nose at a $3.6 million bonus, which paints a rather unfair picture of the man he has since become.

What Made Sam Polk Quit Wall Street?

To hear Polk tell it, a lot of his problems could be traced to his childhood. In his own words, his father was like a modern version of Willy Loman from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Someone who had resorted to baseless fantasies of a future in which he had managed to make a million dollars in order to fend off the realities of a failing career, which saw him sometimes living paycheck-to-paycheck on his spouse's salary as a nurse-practitioner. In total, Polk received two things from his father, one of which was a belief that having lots and lots of money would make things better, while the other was a deep-rooted sense of helplessness that came from the simple fact that his father combined his fantasies with a horrendous temper.

At college, Polk became a wreck of a human being, so much so that he has expressed his amazement that he managed to make it out of Columbia University at all. After all, he was not just a drinker like most college students but also someone who was making regular use of harder, more dangerous drugs such as cocaine, Ritalin, and ecstasy, which led to him getting fired by an Internet company for fist-fighting, suspended once by Columbia University for burglary, and actually getting arrested by the police not once but twice. Eventually, a decisive moment came when Polk was dumped by his girlfriend after three weeks into an internship at Credit Suisse First Boston that he had gotten by omitting all of his misadventures from his application, which forced him to seek out a counselor for assistance with his problems.

Unfortunately, while Polk managed to stop using drugs and alcohol for the time being, he did nothing about the belief that he had inherited from his father. As a result, he sought out a position in finance after he graduated from Columbia University, which he eventually managed to land by calling a wide range of managers day after day for week after week. The $40,000 bonus that he received at the end of his first year seemed like the vindication of his belief, but instead of being satisfied, he became excited by the prospect of how much money there was out there to be made, which started when one of his co-workers was hired away for $900,000.

Four years after he started at Bank of America, Polk got an offer for a position at Citibank that paid him $1.75 million per year for two years, but instead used it to get a better offer from Bank of America. At this point, he was already making millions of dollars on an annual basis, which did not include the perks that he would get from stock brokers who were looking to build useful connections with stock traders. His counselor suggested that he had replaced his reliance on drugs and alcohol to make himself feel in control with a reliance on money, but at this point in time, Polk scoffed at the idea before rushing off to make more and more money.

Eventually, Polk began reevaluating his opinion of his industry, which was fueled by their railing against anything that threatened their profits as well as his growing interest in social justice as a personal goal rather than a vague ideal that was mouthed rather than really felt. The culmination of his transformation came with the Great Recession when he made an enormous profit for his employer by selling the derivatives of risky companies, which struck him particularly hard because like a lot of people in the industry, he saw it coming but did nothing to help the people who would be hurt the most by the economic disaster.

Polk's demand for an even bigger bonus than $3.6 million was the result of what he claims to have been his reflexive desire to make more and more money. His boss actually agreed to his demand, but Polk left anyways, though it took time for him to overcome that reflexive urge. Something that still hasn't happened entirely.

What Is Sam Polk Doing Now?

Nowadays, Polk spends his time lending a helping hand to those who need it. Part of this consists of volunteer work, which range from speaking at jails and juvenile detention centers about the process of getting sober to teaching a writing class for children in the foster system. However, it should also be noted that he has started up a nonprofit called Groceryships, which focuses on improving the well-being of people living in low-income communities, as well as a social enterprise called Everytable, which focuses on making and then selling ready-to-eat meals made using fresh ingredients while remaining as affordable as possible. Finally, it is interesting to note that he has even gotten married and had a daughter with his spouse, which is a reflection of his changed view of what success means.

Ultimately, Polk's view on Wall Street is complicated. He believes that its internal culture encourages negative attitudes with negative consequences for society as a whole, but he also believes that it is the result of a genuine addiction to wealth. Considering how most people react when handed power as well as the power that is associated with wealth, his belief might not be as unbelievable as it sounds.


Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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