Why Can't Vegans Be More Like Me?

My wife and a few friends of hers were doing a kind of cleanse this past week, which is a nice way of saying they were eating things they would not otherwise choose to eat. To her credit, she never suggested that I join her, thus saving me from coming up with excuses as to this was a particularly bad week for me to give up saturated fats and white flour.

A few days into this super healthy eating, I asked Liz how it was going. I was prepared to be sympathetic and determined not to gloat.

"I feel amazing," she said. "I have tons of energy. I'm just... I don't know. Happier, almost. I can't wait to get the kids eating better too."

I stared at her for a moment. "I love you," I said, "and I want to believe you. But I need you to swear that you're not just saying this."

Liz put her hands on my shoulders. "I swear I'm telling you the truth," she said. "Eating better really does make me feel better."

I opened my mouth but she cut me off with a finger to my lips. "Conor, I know you think eating better is a hippie conspiracy. And you know I've always been right there with you. But it turns out that maybe there really is something to this."

She had hit the nail on the head. Whenever I didn't want to do something, I am excellent at first considering the messenger, and then judging that messenger rather than the message itself.

Radical healthy eating was a perfect example of this.

My first college roommate at UVA went from super preppy southern Californian kid to becoming a vegan, and that transformation was accompanied by a transition to short, nappy dreadlocks, patchouli baths (I never figured out what that stuff is for except maybe to help hippies find each other in the dark) and a lot of pot-smoking.

Meanwhile, I and my other friends continued to use our free time playing first person shooter games and stuffing our faces with anything that Frito-Lay put on the market, never so much as glancing at the ingredients list that, out of context, would have read like a shopping list for a meth lab.

Organic eating is now far more widespread of course, yet I still choose to associate super healthy eating with an alternative lifestyle, a lifestyle where you're forced to shun disposable diapers and where you raise goats for their milk and the healthy bacteria they bring into your home.

Now, my own wife, who has always looked great and who has always been my co-enabler whenever we crave Chinese food, has boldly ventured into the super healthy for a week. Liz is now in the dominion of those I've always considered hippies. And she's declared that those hippies may be on to something.

Here's what I'm learning -- if reluctantly:

If we want to innovate, or make an impact on society, we need to start listening to people that we may not really want to listen to.

Why is there such a focus on women's education and empowerment in the developing world? It's not altruism. It's because women are the ones making the best long-term decisions for their families. They are the ones who will raise their families -- and thus their communities -- out of poverty. But for several thousand years, nobody was paying attention.

When Gerber started to get orders from nursing homes, they didn't pay a lot of attention at first - it was way outside their target demographic. Until somebody paid attention and realized that the elderly were a key market for baby food. It wasn't a new phenomenon. It was just that nobody was listening to them.

How long have folks been beating the drum about environmental protection? The problem was they dressed like flower children. Now the "green market" is trumpeted by guys in suits, waving laser pointers. That market is expected to hit one trillion dollars by 2030. The message hasn't changed -- the messengers have.

One of the more dramatic failures for me in this regard involved my faith (and I'm about to say the word Jesus here, so you might want to duck and cover). For the first 30 years of my life I associated the word "Jesus" with right-wing, small-minded bigots, because those are the people I read about. When I actually read the Bible, I found that the man himself was pretty much the opposite of that. I'm talking 180 degree, total opposite. Again, the message had always been there. I just hadn't liked the people who I heard it from. (Okay, you guys can come out now. Coast is clear.)

It makes me wonder what else we're missing.

The good thing is that we won't have to wonder for long.

The great innovators -- the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Malcolm Gladwells and the Meg Whitmans -- those folks will tell us soon enough. Because they're actually listening, and they're going to change the world with it.