Sam Polk takes us on a walk through Wall Street, and through a rich inner life that forced him to leave it at the height of success.
For the Love of Money: A Memoir by Sam Polk, Scribner Book Company, 288 pages, $25.00, Hardcover, July 2016, ISBN 9781476785981
Sam Polk's new book, For the Love of Money, is a Wall Street memoir, so the obvious first comparison is Liar’s Poker. Sam Polk actually references Michael Lewis’s book as his original inspiration to chase an internship on a trading floor. But this book is much different than Liar’s Poker. It’s far more personal, more pained, and more poignant throughout. He doesn’t even really get into his life on Wall Street until page 107. Michael Lewis exposed the culture on Wall Street, whereas Polk, while he does some of that, more fully exposes himself than anything else. And whereas Michael Lewis has gone on to be one of the best financial journalists and non-fiction writers working, you get the feeling Sam Polk’s next book, if he ever writes one, might be a novel.
The book begins with a five page prologue, which finds him in emotional turmoil, contemplating leaving Wall Street because its culture is increasingly at odds with his values and lifestyle, yet becoming infuriated that his bonus was only $3.6 million—enough to make him obscenely wealthy, but not as much as he suspected a rival coworker was getting and not as much as he felt he deserved. He is torn, at one moment pulled by the better angels of his nature, and the next by the enormous wealth he stands to make if he can just stomach the culture. To uplift your spirits, he opens Chapter One with the tale of his boyhood dog dying. Then, it’s quickly on to many other childhood tragedies and embarrassments, childhood crushes, boyfriends choking him in school, being stalked by bullys at camp. He tells us that:
By the end of seventh grade, Ben [his twin brother] and I had crossed the line from chubby to fat, and we got picked on. A lot.
It all changes when, while boat tubing at camp, he is humiliated and angered after falling into the ocean and being laughed at by those driving the boat back to get him. Something hardened inside him out there in the ocean. He started fighting back, beginning that afternoon when he confronted and beat up the bully that had been stalking him all camp long. He eventually dropped the weight that caused all the teasing and became a high school wrestler. He started drinking in high school and doing drugs in college. He was suspended from Columbia University for a burglary, and fled to San Francisco where he found his first professional success in a start-up, helping that company grow wildly during the first tech boom, before getting fired for fighting someone in the office he owed money to after a night of partying. It ended up being great timing, however, as he fled just before the dot-com bubble burst, and there was an opening back at Columbia where he could finish his education.
And that is where this becomes a proper Wall Street memoir. He applies for an internship on a trading floor, and lands one. He finds his work hard, play hard lifestyle fits the culture of Wall Street perfectly. And just when you think you have another Wolf of Wall Street or Straight to Hell story on your hands, it changes again. His long-time girlfriend breaks up with him in the middle of his internship, telling him that she doesn’t like the person he's become. He realizes that night that he doesn't either, and what hardened in him out in the ocean at camp begins to melt away. He decides to stop drinking and partying—not exactly conducive to the social rapport he had been building in the bars after work with his higher ups and co-interns. Yet, he decided he wanted to be a better man more than he wanted the job. He didn’t get offered a job.
He gets his first break after college at Bank of America in Charlotte, when Marshall Masters not only returns his phone call after he calls him every day for three weeks in a row, he takes him from a first-year analyst and makes him a trader in just eight months on the job. He also became a mentor and father figure to him. His next break comes when a senior trader installed above him, who didn’t have to give up any sectors, split them down the middle and works with him more as a partner than a boss. His star rose fast from there. He was soon offered $1.75 million guaranteed for two years by a competing firm—after just three years as a trader.
When I was offered $1.75 million for two years, I knew I was going to become a rich man.
But I didn’t just want to be very rich. I wanted to be super rich. While the Citibank job would make me a millionaire, it wouldn’t make me a billionaire.
He didn’t take the job.
Instead, he used it as leverage to move to a more lucrative position within Bank of America. He was now in a class of people that gets picked up on helicopters, that can get into any restaurant or any sporting event at any time. He had achieved real power, along with real money. Yet he found he didn’t much enjoy the success. He always wanted more. And when he learned that some of his colleagues had more, he seethed. And he set out to get it for himself.
There is a lot of testosterone and adrenaline flowing through these stories, especially when he takes you inside some of the different deals he worked on the trading floor—and especially one involving a spectacularly risky maneuver on Verizon stock. It’s at these times the book reads almost like a car chase. And in the next moment he’s laying his soul bare.
Even though it doesn’t turn into a tale of debauchery, there are some only-on-Wall-Street scenes in the book, such as when Marshall Masters asks on a ride to the airport how he’s doing, and he answers honestly that he’s struggling financially, under the weight of student loans and still on a first-year analysts salary:
Marshall looked over at me and then opened the center console between us. Inside were stacks of hundred-dollar bills. He pulled out a stack and held it in my direction.
He didn’t take it.
The final journey on Wall Street sees him leaving Bank of America after the financial crisis hits, to become head of the distressed trading desk at another firm, which is where we were at the start of the book. He’s on the cusp of what his mentor tells him could be a legendary Wall Street career. And yet he’s fed up with the excess and the substance abuse, the greed and misogyny of the culture there. If he sticks it out, he could someday start a hedge fund of his own and do good works quietly with all the money and power that accumulates with a position like that, or he can wash his hands of it all and just leave.
Long story short, he left it all behind and founded a non-profit focusing on issues of food insecurity and food deserts. It is a story of constant reinvention, of a man who wants to become a better person, and makes that a lifelong journey. He is in no way perfect, as he lets us know at the end of the book, but that’s not the point. The point is that improvement is always possible, and reading his life story, seeing his soul laid bare and how he healed it, provides inspiration for us to do the same. For those reasons and more, For the Love of Money is literary and uplifting, a perfect summer read.