In January, while doing an internship in San Francisco, I found myself in the hospital. Fortunately, I needed to have insurance to even step foot in the states, so the hospital stay passed without a hitch. After my first night there, someone came by from the company I was working for and brought me food. However, the hospital was already feeding me, and they’d brought me, among other things, a whole fruit basket! I can’t eat so many apples and oranges by myself even when healthy.
I therefore decided, when I was discharged, that instead of just throwing out the remaining food, I would try to give it to the people on the street near Union Square who were begging. What followed was a remarkable experience.
The first observation I made was that the street people weren’t nearly as omnipresent as I’d thought—I lived near Union Square and I had the sense that I’d be able to give away the food in about 15 minutes easily. The first bit, indeed, went quickly, but then I had to spread out.
More significantly, I found it to be a profoundly unique feeling to be looking for beggars. So often the impulse is to try to avoid eye contact or to look away, in an attempt at denial or at least an attempt to avoid feeling obliged to help. This was a 180° shift for me, and was quite a surprise.
A similar experience showed up for me this week, when I was at a friend’s house and he had a device that looked like a squash racket with metal strings, that would literally zap fruit flies out of the air. I grabbed it and obliterated a few, and then found myself looking for fruit flies… opening cupboard doors in hopes of finding some. What?! If you’d told me last week that I’d spend some of this week excitedly looking for fruit flies (and disappointed not to find any) I would have been quite skeptical.
But it was fun! And so was interacting with the people on the street, once I was feeling truly and deeply generous. I also learned that many homeless people will refuse apples—because they don’t have sufficient teeth with which to eat them. That was totally something I took for granted.
I think there’s a broader lesson here, which is that a tiny shift in intention can transform situations from being unpleasant or tiring into being exciting and enjoyable. This can be applied to one’s life (making a game out of a chore) or could be used to create a product like that bug zapper. Any product that takes a necessary part of life and makes it fun instead of unpleasant offers a clear value to the users.