A Former Wall Street Trader on Why He Left Banking
“You can feel like making $800,000 is almost like living in poverty."
For all the movies, books, and mythology that exist about Wall Street, the inner workings of big banks and the motivations of those who work there remain somewhat mysterious to lots of Americans.
The nebulousness of life on Wall Street, coupled with its fabled salaries, make it hard to forgive the housing bust, the bailouts, and the recession that the country is still recovering from—particularly given the fact that there was little punishment for those who led the U.S. down the road of financial ruin.
I spoke with Sam Polk, the author of the memoir For the Love of Money and a former trader—first at a major bank and later at a hedge fund—about the desires that led him to Wall Street, what it takes to flourish there, and what ultimately led him to leave. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gillian B. White: Your story isn’t an unfamiliar one for anyone who has worked on Wall Street or spent a lot of time talking to finance folks. How is the way you’re talking about your experience different?
Sam Polk: My overriding experience in my 20s was this yearning for money, wealth, and success above all. Once I left Wall Street, I sort of realized that there weren't any books that I'd read that explored that feeling and where it came from in a super honest and vulnerable way.
White: Where do you think that yearning comes from, both for you and others?
Polk: One of the main themes is how the fears of children become the misbehaviors of adult people. And not just misbehaviors—there are all these famous stories: Steve Jobs and Barack Obama not having a dad, for instance. Or people who, through the course of their childhood, had a hole created inside them. For many of us, that then spurs a lifetime of trying to fill that hole, sometimes through drugs and alcohol, sometimes through success and achievement.
White: You seem pretty self-aware now, but at points in the book it seems like you were 100 percent sold on the priorities and culture of of the industry. Do you think you were totally invested in it? And how did that happen?
Polk: It's funny, because most people who haven't been on Wall Street think that the stuff that I was struggling with—for instance that my $3.6 million bonus isn't enough and it should be $8 million—is totally absurd. I think that is indicative of how insular and cloistered that Wall Street culture is. Wall Street for the most part doesn't interact with other people—you can feel like making $800,000 is almost like living in poverty.
White: Your book follows your entire journey through Wall Street, which includes your sales-and-trading internship. One of the most interesting and frustrating things about those internships is that your job is largely to become beloved by the traders—you don’t have much work that you’re judged on. Can you talk about how that plays into some of the weirder things that happen on trading floors?
Polk: Like you said, there's no actual work for you to accomplish because in essence your job is to learn how it all works. So the only ways to stand out are to stand out socially. That's part of the reason why there are often these bizarre hazing rituals where a senior guy on the desk will offer the junior intern $500 if they can eat one of everything in the vending machine, or $400 if they can eat 35 donut holes in less than a minute. Mostly the interns do those things because they feel pressure to fit in, they feel pressure to impress their boss, and it is that one way that you can sort of build a reputation since you're actually not contributing anything.
White: I’ve always wondered if that likability factor plays a role in why Wall Street remains so homogenous. What do you think?
Polk: Wall Street is sort of like a fraternity in that it calls on people's insecurity and need to fit in. Since you aren't contributing anything in a professional sense, you have to find a way to get accepted to the group, and a lot of time that involves drinking a lot when you're out with the guys. It definitely involves buying coffee and fetching people's lunches. But also this is exactly what keeps the white male patriarchy so strong on Wall Street: If the way you get into Wall Street is not by your intellect or your merit, but how well people like you at a bar, well, then people are going to choose the people they're used to hanging out with in a bar.
I'll give you an example. At one of the places that I worked, we were interviewing two candidates. One was a young athlete, white male, from a good school but not a great school, and the other was this kid from Singapore who had won a national investing competition and had majored in mathematics. I remember being blown away that the guys at my desk preferred the young baseball player from Bucknell to the Singaporean kid.
White: Why did you find that situation so striking?
Polk: It really highlights this strong institutional culture that is supportive of conformity. It's almost like Wall Street wants you to give up any sort of personality or flair or anything that makes you different so that you can focus entirely on being in service to this machine with the sole purpose of making money.
White: You talk a lot about women and your relationships with them in this book. But almost all of those relationships are personal ones. You hardly ever mention women in the workplace. That alone feels like a telling statement on gender dynamics at banks, particularly on the trading floor.
Polk: I think it's a funny and interesting point that you bring up. There were not a lot of women involved in my professional life. There were incredibly few women in the both the hedge fund and the trading floors that I worked at. The women that were there were often secretaries or receptionists.
White: My experience in the industry also suggests that trading remains largely a boys’ club. But do you think it’s because women aren’t getting hired or because once they are at banks, in certain roles, it’s hard for them to succeed in the same way as their peers?
Polk: You know, Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In how much less mentorship young ambitious women receive than men. It is way less likely that a woman starting out on Wall Street would be able to build that type of mentorship that I built with Marshall Masters [Polk’s mentor and boss], which is why I think it's incumbent upon men first of all to stop hitting on or degrading the women that work for them—which goes on very often. But in addition to that, to really take young women under their wing and give them the same, if not more, mentorship than the young men that it might be their first reaction to mentor.
White: You jumped ship within a few years of the economic collapse. If the crash hadn't happened, would you still be working on Wall Street?
Polk: There was a part of me that absolutely loved Wall Street, but also from the beginning there was this part of me that yearned to do something better in the world and help people and be of service. And the longer I was on Wall Street the more that part of myself grew and developed. I think it was only a matter of time before I left Wall Street, but that crash really opened my eyes in a much faster way than it would have otherwise.
White: How so? What were the things that you saw during those years—say 2008 to 2010—that shifted your mindset?
Polk: I had been on Wall Street from 2003 to 2010, and when the market crashed in 2008, it was the end of this bull market where derivatives were exploding and the stock market was going up and everybody was making money. During 2003 to 2008 I really thought that I had the best job in the world and that the people I was working for and looked up to were these captains of industry who were incredibly meritocratic. When the crash came and they lost money and didn't take accountability for that, what that said to me was that what you read about in the papers was absolutely true.
Wall Street had gotten bailed out by the government—most of those banks would have gone bankrupt—and still, traders were furious at the idea of having their bonuses limited. The heads of major banks kept saying, “We couldn't have seen this coming,” even though it was their job to see this coming. For me it was a period of great disillusionment where I went from seeing Wall Street as this great coliseum for my young ambitions to really little more than a patriarchal oligarchy.
White: Do you think that the the recession has changed anything on Wall Street?
Polk: I don't think it changed things, although it could have. The main problem with Wall Street is distorted incentives. You get paid a lot of money if you do well, but if you lose a lot of money, you don't lose that money personally. So there's tremendous incentive to take big risks for big profits because there's no downside if it goes bad. When the government bailed out the banks, nothing bad happened to the executives at those firms. If it had, if those people had lost their jobs and experienced pain, then things might have gone back to the structure before the 1980s. Each of the major investment banks was separated from the consumer banks, and each of them was run as a partnership. If the firm lost money, then each of those partners lost money as well. There’s been this move towards public stock markets and quarterly earnings metrics and this intense pressure to grow earnings every single year that has led to the current state today.
White: You’re a dad now. What would you say if one of your kids wanted to follow in your footsteps and become a trader?
Polk: I would strongly hope that my kids would choose a profession that allows them to both fulfill their personal ambitions—whether that's for wealth, money, power, influence—but also their personal aspirations, which I believe are equally important. Things like helping others and making a real contribution to the world. That part is the most crucial in my mind when you choose a career, and that's the part that's often left out of the Wall Street career.
White: But don’t you think it’s easier to talk about following your passion or choosing a job less for money and more for impact once you’ve already made a couple million dollars, or at least don’t have the very basic financial worries that a lot of Americans have?
Polk: That's true. I've been incredibly fortunate, and the connections and wealth I built on Wall Street have been enormously helpful to me in both coming to this perspective and starting these organizations I'm currently working on. At the same time I believe there is a way to make money and also make a positive contribution to the world and we can all find our own way to do that.
I once went to this party at a private-equity guy's house, and it was, you know, a $20 million house, and it was spectacularly beautiful, and I remember thinking, like, “Wow, this guy no doubt has incredible skill and expertise in what he does, and yet, I don't know if the world would be much better, much worse if he hadn't been around.” Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a culture where the people who get to live in these houses were ones that had developed skill and expertise, but also used that in ways to help people, and especially the people that need it most?
White: For sure. But how do we get to that place where a 20-something college graduate who’s worried about student-loan payments, and helping out their parents with money—or at least not being a financial burden—isn’t enticed to go to the most lucrative career they’re qualified for?
Polk: The really difficult thing about that right now is the deep structural inequality of our country, where 76 percent of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck. It's not a situation where all of America is making tons of money, but it's not enough. It's actually a scenario where people want that money because they don't have it, and for many of them there's not a path to get it. And so it's almost like, as a country, we put ourselves in this terrible place where we all know that making a lot of money isn't fulfilling and doesn't make you happy, but at the same time, it's clear that that would be better than reality for most people, which is, “I don't have anything and I don't know how I'm going to make rent next month.”
I think it's incumbent upon all of us to create opportunities for young people that allows them to both reach their personal ambitions for wealth and safety and security but also allows them to do things that they care about. And that's why I'm so interested in the rise of impact investing and also have co-founded a social enterprise myself. I do believe that this old structure of for-profit businesses being only focused on making money and then non-profits being only focused on doing good creates this sort of false disparity, whereas in each of us there is both that need to make money but also that sort of spiritual human need to do good in the world. And right now there aren't a lot of opportunities for young people to fix both of those needs.