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Like Nailing Jell-O® to a Tree

April 11, 2012

My grandma was a big fan of Jell-O® – bowls, parfaits, dessert cups and even “Jell-O® Salad” which she loaded with all kinds of stuff.  One of her favorite concoctions had shredded carrots and cabbage suspended in lime gelatin which carried the none-too-appetizing name of Vitamin Salad.

I was never the biggest fan.

Now I do to admit to whipping up a batch or two of Jell-O® in my life – sans floating morsels of vegetables of course. The recipe directions on the box are fairly idiot-proof and I’ve managed to get it right a few times over the years; not too runny, not too chewy – just right. I have, however, learned one lesson over the years – if attempting to add fruit (think strawberries) it’s crucial to make sure the fruit is well-dried before mixing it in; too much moisture will throw off that delicate balance of 1 cup hot water/1 cup cold water and leave one with a bowl of liquid that refuses to ‘set.’


Nailing Jell-O® to a tree has come to be a metaphor for attempting an impossible task.

  • “Trying to get your mother to understand how to use Skype?” “Like nailing Jell-O® to a tree.”
  • “Convincing the-powers-that-be that tele-work may be a viable option for the workforce?” “Like nailing Jello-O® to a tree.”
  • “Increasing the robust use of social channels and networks among HR practitioners?” “Like nailing Jello-O® to a tree.”


But as with many things in life, sometimes we give up before exploring other options.  Does the difficulty in accomplishing a particular task arise due to our own inadequate specifications/details?  Do we have an inherent problem when working to move-the-needle forward because we’re using imprecise language? Have we identified, and attempted to nail that slippery Jell-O®, in the right sweet spot?

So how DO we nail that elusive gelatinous mess to the tree?  If we take a spoonful right from the bowl and hoist the hammer we’re bound to fail.  But perhaps we:

  • Put the Jell-O® in a Ziploc® baggie and then nail the baggie to the tree
  • Whip up some Jell-O® Jigglers which are a bit sturdier and may adhere better
  • Chop down the tree so it’s laying on its side before we commence the hammering
  • Cook up a batch of Jell-O® shots, drink them down, and stop worrying about nailing anything to that damn piece of timber


There’s not much that’s impossible.  Sometimes we just need to approach it in a new way.

And one interesting side note – in the UK and some other parts of the world, people call this stuff “jelly.”  Jelly with carrots and cabbage sounds just as loathsome.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joel Peterson permalink
    April 11, 2012 7:06 am

    Thanks for the awesome, humorous examination of a phrase that I have always found just as strange as the gelatinous product it features. Applying a creative approach to a challenging task is indeed often like finding the best way to nail jello to a tree. Equally important, as you point out in the final lines of your commentary, is the ability to step back and say, “Wait, why am I doing this in the first place?” I for one have often been asked to do a task or initiated a task myself that ended up making just as much sense as nailing jello to a tree. It’s important to be able to recognize when enough is enough, to put the spoon down and walk away.

  2. April 11, 2012 8:40 pm

    Bill Cosby would love this! Very well put! I have to admit that I used to love the Jello-O® mould – salad – veggiesuspended concauction that my grandmother used to make.

    Ahhhhh the memories!

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