"Well, then what do you eat?" is a question I hear on a daily basis.
When I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease--a food allergy to the most commonly used ingredient in America: wheat. In fact, when I was studying abroad in Prague many years ago, I was talking to a chef there and he said, "When we add wheat to a soup, we call it 'adding America.'"
Before I found out I had Celiac Disease, I spent every single day of my adolescence sick. I didn't have a normal childhood. I was afraid to go out to eat with friends, always assuming the worst stomach ache awaited me on the other side. I missed so much school that my parents received threatening letters home insisting that I would have to repeat grades if I didn't show up more often. I saw doctor after doctor, endured test after test, all of them insisting that I was "fine." Many of them told me I should go on a "safe" diet: bread with butter.
Wheat and dairy.
When I finally found out that the solution was to eat gluten free, my entire life changed in a single dinner. I vividly remember the day, actually: I was on a family vacation and my mother (who had also just found out that she had Celiac Disease) was instructing me on what I could order that would be entirely gluten free: fish, a baked potato, and a side of broccoli.
Obviously, I wanted the bright yellow macaroni and cheese with the side of Italian garlic bread sitting in front of both my younger brothers, but I heeded my mother's advice and ordered the fish instead.
I left that dinner feeling incredible. No stomach ache. No aches and pains. No sprinting back to our family cabin to seek refuge in the bathroom. I felt like a normal person.
Since that day, I haven't (intentionally) eaten gluten again.
If you want to learn an incredibly valuable business lesson, try going gluten free for a month.
I turned 18 in 2008, back when "gluten free" was far from the health-conscious food trend it is today. There were no gluten free bakeries or gluten free menus at restaurants. There was no gluten free aisle in the grocery store, or gluten free snacks you could buy and stuff in your backpack. My entire diet was, and has since been, an assortment of rice, proteins, and vegetables.
That's about it.
For most people (especially in America), this is nearly incomprehensible. The American diet is built on processed foods, wheat, and dairy--another major food category that I gave up when I was 19 years old, in an attempt to cure my acne and lingering stomach problems (and it did).
In America, we eat pasta (wheat) covered with cheese (dairy). We eat bread (wheat) with boatloads of butter (dairy). Cereal (wheat) with milk (dairy). Pastries (wheat and dairy), cakes, waffles, the list goes on and on.
Which means, to not eat gluten or dairy is to, in every sense, go your own way.
For many years, being gluten (and then dairy) free was a huge struggle. In many ways, it still is--not as a discipline, but culturally. Everywhere I go, I have to explain myself. Every restaurant requires a 5-minute strategy session with the waiter or waitress. Every dinner involves a main dish for everyone else, and then a side helping of the "weird gluten free noodles" for me. For years, I hesitated asking girls out on dates, unsure of whether they would have the patience or not to endure my searching for a restaurant that could be accommodating. I hated (and rarely attended) many social events--everything from school networking events to house parties--knowing that the foods and beverages of choice would be made with wheat: pizza and beer, for example.
Being gluten and dairy free in our society requires you to live life on your own terms--and for most people, that's an extremely difficult thing to do.
No one likes being the "odd man out." We all want to fit in, to be accepted, to feel like we belong--and culturally, one of the ways we do this is through food and drink.
I don't have that option.
Everywhere I go, I am the odd one. I have to make "special requests." I don't fit in. I have to explain myself. I have to be careful, ask questions, seem paranoid even, asking vehemently about what a dish is made with--otherwise I will be leaving feeling sick. I don't belong. I can't just "order what looks good," clang beers with the boys and be part of the group.
I can't, because I am allergic.
As a result, I have gotten made fun of. I have been told that it's "just a trend" and that "I'll probably be fine." I have gone plenty of places and sat there, hungry, watching everyone else eat. I have been told things are gluten free, when they're not, and then spent the rest of the night sick. I have, in every social setting possible, felt like I didn't belong.
And you know what? That taught me arguably the single most valuable lesson in business, ever.
A lot of people know what's best for them, but can't stay true to themselves--because they don't want to be singled out.
All along my journey, I have run into countless people who, at one point or another, have approached me and said, "You know, my doctor said I should go on a gluten and dairy free diet, but I just can't. I love pizza too much."
I've had people say, "Yeah, I've had stomach problems all my life, but I don't want to go gluten free. It'll be too hard."
I've had people pull me aside at a dinner and say, "I know dairy is bad for me but, I don't know what I would eat with all my friends."
I'll save the nutrition side of this conversation for another time.
The truth is, going gluten and dairy free has taught me a different level of discipline and self trust. I don't have the option of bending on the rules--nor would I want to. I spent the first 18 years of my life chained to the bathroom. I already feel like everyone else got a two-decade head start on life, and I'm still catching up. No piece of pizza or bowl of spaghetti is worth another day imprisoned.
As a result, and in being forced to go my own way, I have learned that in order to be healthy and happy, you cannot listen to what other people say you should do. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. Explain myself an innumerable amount of times has made me realize how many people in society make decisions not for themselves, but out of fear of what other people will think of them.
They know they shouldn't eat something--and yet they do, because they don't want to be seen as weird, or different.
If you look closely, this same issue replicates itself everywhere. People are afraid of standing out, of feeling like they don't belong, and so they follow what's popular. They follow what other people tell them to do. They go the safe route, never reaching their full potential out of fear--a fear of being "different."
In business, when someone tells me they don't like my idea, or my direction, or where it is I want to go, it doesn't phase me. I've learned that many entrepreneurs and so-called "business leaders" make decisions the same way they pick what to eat for dinner.
They choose what's popular and widely accepted. Not what's best, for them.
Go gluten and dairy free for a month and you'll see what I mean. It sounds easy in theory, but the moment all your friends start rallying and telling you to join them, you'll crack. I watch it happen every single day, with people who literally sit down at the table and say out loud, "I've been dairy free for three days!" only to dive into the ice cream forty minutes later.
I have always been a firm believer that all of life's most important lessons can be learned a million different ways. It's not the "thing" that matters, but what perspective you've extracted from it--and applied to your life.
Editor's note: A previous version of this post misidentified mayonnaise as a dairy product. Mayo contains no dairy and is made with eggs.