The Magic of Suspended Coffee and Free Haircuts

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In this AI-generated image, a teal coffee cup full of coffee sits on a barista's tray. On the cup, a post-it note reads, "This is a suspended coffee, for anyone in need. (heart emoji) Behind the cup and out of focus, coffeehouse patrons enjoy coffee and conversation.

The following guest post is an excerpt from Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading, the brand-new book from the curator of TED Chris Anderson.

You can find the book’s free companion AI assistant by clicking here. All author proceeds from the book are being donated to advance TED’s nonprofit mission of spreading ideas.

Chris Anderson (@TEDchris) has been the curator of TED since 2001. His TED mantra—“ideas worth spreading”—continues to blossom on an international scale, with some three billion TED Talks viewed annually. He lives in New York City and London.

The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh taught that attention is the most precious gift we can give someone. Certainly, all generosity starts right there—a willingness to stop focusing on ourselves and pay attention to someone else and their needs. From that act of connection, anything can happen.

In 2015, Joshua Coombes was working as a hairdresser at a London salon. One day, while walking back from work, he noticed a familiar homeless person on the sidewalk. Most Londoners walk past the homeless every day, as though they were invisible. Not so Joshua. He approached the man and asked him how he was. Then he had an idea. He had his clippers and scissors with him, so he offered the careworn homeless man a free haircut right there on the street.

“In the hour that followed, he told me his story,” Joshua writes in his book Do Something for Nothing. “We connected and became close.” Touched by his experience, Joshua started heading into the streets of London whenever he could, offering haircuts to homeless people. Eventually he cut back to part-time work in order to spend more time on the streets.

Joshua found his new vocation incredibly rewarding. Having established an immediate sense of trust, he found that the people he was meeting began opening up about their lives. Hearing the remarkable and often harrowing stories of his homeless clients was in itself a reward. He was struck by their resilience and courage, and thankful for the time they spent together. Determined to broadcast their stories and shatter lazy assumptions about homeless people, Joshua took to Instagram. He posted “before-and-after-haircut” pictures of his homeless clients, told their stories (in their own words), and signed off with the hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing. He then started to couch-surf with friends and acquaintances all over the world, giving his time to homeless people across fourteen cities in the Americas, Europe, India, and Australia, and broadcasting their stories via social media. Before long, his Instagram fame resulted in collaborations with brands and NGOs.

Joshua has garnered over 150,000 Instagram followers, who have been moved by the stories he shares. When Joshua posted crowd-funding appeals to fix temporary accommodation for his friends, the cash flowed in. #DoSomethingForNothing became a social movement, with Joshua’s inbox full of messages from people pledging their help. Joshua writes that one of the most powerful choices we make each day is to be aware of how we interact with those around us. “Give the benefit of the doubt to other people until they prove us otherwise. . . . How difficult is it to say hello?”

The truth is it can be difficult. We spend much of our time lost in our own worlds. We’re often reluctant to focus on the issues that others are dealing with. They will only complicate our lives. So we put up shields. And that means that many of the people who could really use our attention never feel seen. The generosity of attention is therefore the generosity of being willing to be a little uncomfortable, to take down those shields, to give up a little time, to risk coming to care about someone else.

What about the critique that Joshua’s interventions aren’t tackling the underlying systemic problems that cause homelessness? Personally, I’m willing to grant hero status to those who are ready to do their bit to make things better for someone else, even if they’re operating in a flawed system.

No one is suggesting that individual acts of kindness should be a substitute for tackling systemic issues. On the contrary, they help prepare the way. If we don’t practice generosity with each other, system change has no chance. Every act of generous engagement, no matter how small, can start someone on a journey of immense consequence. Here’s another instance of that.

John Sweeney grew up in Ireland. He felt invisible. As a child he was bullied by other children. Even by his teachers. “I felt like the loneliest child in the world; like I had nothing and no one,” he told my research assistant Kate. Years later, as an adult, he had a pivotal experience that revealed the value of paying attention. He had seen a homeless young woman on the streets of Cork, so he bought her a hot meal and stopped for a chat. Through poverty and chronic disease, she had struggled to care for her three children. She felt completely invisible.

“I want you to know that I care about you, even though I don’t know you,” John told her. “You absolutely matter and I see you.” The experience brought both of them to tears. “The fact that you stopped means the world to me,” the woman told him.

John told the story to his children, who passed the word along. One of the kids’ friends—a young boy named Isaac—was soon Christmas shopping in the neighborhood and ran into the same woman. Isaac decided to give her fifty euros—his entire Christmas pocket money—to buy Christmas presents for her three children. The children and their mum had completely given up hope of celebrating Christmas. The story spread and ended up making national news.

Realizing that paying attention to a stranger, even for a moment, was a powerful way of spreading kindness, John found a way to make it easy for others to do just this. He had heard about the Italian tradition of caffè sospeso—“suspended coffee.” The idea is simple. Customers at a café buy an extra “suspended coffee” on top of their own—a pay-it-forward gift that may be claimed by anyone. This could be a poor or homeless person. Often, however, the claimants are people who are simply having a rough day. A kind gesture from a stranger can be all it takes to show them that they matter and make life bearable—and even beautiful. For the gift giver, all it takes is to remember that there are others out there who would love the luxury you’re about to indulge in. And that you can easily give them that gift.

John made it his mission to spread suspended coffee to the whole world. It was an idea whose time had come. Within two years, two thousand cafés in thirty-four countries were actively promoting suspended coffee, and the movement now has five hundred thousand followers on Facebook.

He receives daily messages of appreciation from both café owners and suspended coffee participants. One man wrote to him from Philadelphia: “John, you don’t know me, but the impact your message has had on my life has been profound.” The man had heard John speak and was inspired to make friends with a homeless drug addict, buying him a coffee every day for two months. During this time he came to care deeply about his new friend. So he paid for two months of accommodation for the man and a course of rehab—on condition that “you work hard and turn your life around.” The former drug addict did just that, and enrolled at Philadelphia University, the ripple effect of an act of kindness that started many years earlier and many miles away.

The Generous Coffee Shop in Denver, Colorado, takes this concept a step further. As customers enter the café, they are greeted with a large bulletin board arrayed with hundreds of handwritten credit notes:

• TO: A newly single mom. You got this. FROM: A single mom ($10)

• TO: Someone studying for the bar exam. FROM: Someone doing the same ($5)

• TO: Stranger with a broken heart. FROM: Soren and Ellie ($6) •

• TO: Someone struggling in the first year of starting their own business. FROM: Someone who has made it (it gets better!) ($6)

The free coffee and cake are made that much sweeter by being gifted from a stranger: a stranger who is not only generous, but one who empathizes with what you’re going through, cares about you, and wants to see you pull through.

You don’t have to set up a global organization to exercise this type of generosity. All you have to do is shift your attention to someone else and their story. Whether you stop and have a meaningful connection with a person in need or spend thirty minutes researching a cause you think might matter, you have already begun your generosity journey. You’ve become willing to give the gift of attention. And if you stay open to continuing the journey, it just may have consequences you could never imagine. 


Excerpted from Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading by Chris Anderson. Copyright 2024 by Chris Anderson. Published by Crown Publishing Group. Reprinted with permission. All author proceeds from the book are being donated to advance TED’s nonprofit mission of spreading ideas.

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