The Celery Test

On Monday I found myself staring at an email describing all of the great initiatives a company was rolling out, showcasing a ton of “life-simplifying” tech. There was a problem though. While the list was full of “what we’re going to do,” there was no mention of “how this is actually going to work” or “why this matters.”

Instead of getting excited and seeing a clear path forward, my head was spinning as they told me that they realized I had no spare time, but then suggested I spend time learning several new tools and systems to save me more time in areas I hadn’t even realized I didn’t have time for.

They clearly wanted me to see the features and benefits, but all I could see was the hassle of it all.

Simon Sinek outlines a mental model called, “the celery test” in his classic Start with Why. The abridged version goes something like this: you say you’re hungry, and then people say, “you know what you need is…” and they start listing: rice milk, chocolate bars, cookies, celery, etc. You go to the grocery store and load up a cart, and now you’re just another aimlessly stuffed cart standing in line to checkout. We’ve all been there.

Your cart has no rhyme or reason. It’s stuffed with the suggestions of others. Much like the email I described above, people regularly encourage us to fill up our cart with the stuff they claim we’ll need. Sinek says before we fill the cart, we need some type of organizing rule, a filter, a reason why.

Notice that distinction: “why” doesn’t address the fact that you’re hungry, it addresses the reason behind what you’re going to buy to feed yourself.

What if your “why” was eating healthy? Then what would be in your cart? What would you filter out from the list? What would pass through?

Well, rice milk and celery in this case.

Now, to a passerby in the checkout line, they might take notice – especially if they’re a healthy eater too, and strike up a conversation about your clear shared interest in eating healthy.

“Why” isn’t just a filter, it also sends a clear signal to those interested in figuring out what you’re trying to do. The celery test asks what we need to put in our cart so that we have a unifying message that could be recognized by any interested outsider.

Unfortunately, the email I got couldn’t pass the celery test. While they are correct in assuming I want more time, they were approaching it from the loaded shopping cart way, instead of the clear “look at this collection of healthy items” way.

Fortunately, we can learn from the examples of others and focus on how to make that “why” more clear. It takes work, but that’s exactly why it has value.

If instead of listing all of the great stuff that was coming out, they spent a moment (even a sentence) acknowledging how the only solution for “no time” was “intuitive simplicity,” they would have gotten my (skeptical) attention. If they then said, “now you can do x, y, and z” inside of _____ (insert the app name), and click here for more info, I would have thought, “cool, they’re trying.”

Furthermore, if the x, y, and z mentioned above were all parts of my own daily headaches, it would have been even better (meaning they should have recognized the audience and done a better job targeting the message).

The celery test requires we do some work, but its work well worth putting in. When people see your cart and immediately understand what you’re doing, relationships form and stuff gets done. When a disorganized jumble of features and benefits rumbles down the aisle, no one is going to stop and notice.

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