By Dr Spencer Johnson
I put this on my Amazon wishlist recently as I’d read good reviews of it. Lo and behold, the very next time I went into a charity shop, there it was sitting on the shelf. Of course I had to buy it.
I was quite surprised by how thin it is. And it has quite a big font size. And a lot of the pages are simple illustrations (of a piece of a cheese with a slogan written on it). And some of the pages are taken up with the foreword, reviews, an ‘about the author’ page … you get the picture.
The actual Who Moved My Cheese? part of the book only runs for just over 70 pages and just over 50 if you don’t count the pages that are illustrations rather than text. The pro sides to this are that I read it in about an hour and it’ll be easy to go back to for a top-up of motivation.
Who Moved My Cheese? is a modern day fable. The story is split into three parts: the first part has a group of school friends meeting for a reunion years after leaving school and getting into a discussion about the changes in their lives and how they have dealt with them; the second part consists of the fable itself – one of the friends tells it to the others; the third part returns to the group and reveals their reactions to the fable.
The fable has four characters, each of whom are meant to represent one part of ourselves and the way we react to change.
Sniff and Scurry are mice – Sniff sniffs out change early and Scurry scurries into action to react to change.
Hem and Haw are the ‘little people’ – Hem is afraid of change and lives in denial, whereas Haw takes his time, but eventually realises that change can be good and reacts accordingly.
The four characters live in a maze in which they one day discover a cheese mountain. There is so much cheese they know they are set up for life and move their families and homes to be close by; they build their lives around the cheese knowing the cheese will always be there for them.
Of course, the inevitable happens and one day the cheese mountain is depleted.
Sniff and Scurry react best. Sniff has realised for a while that change is in the air and has already been exploring new possibilities in the maze. Scurry is not far behind him; once the cheese is gone, he doesn’t waste time and gets his running shoes on and is off back into the maze to seek out new opportunities.
The little people don’t adapt to change so well. Although Haw eventually realises the cheese is gone for good and goes back into the maze, it does take him a while. One he starts looking for new opportunities he realises that although it may be difficult he finds enough cheese to sustain him until it all becomes worthwhile and he finds a new and even better cheese mountain.
Hem, on the other hand, doesn’t adapt at all and continues to live in denial, watching his life fall apart around him. He can’t understand why it has happened to him – he’s always been loyal to the cheese; always worked hard spending all day, every day eating the cheese, why should it suddenly abandon him like this?
Of course, the fable relates to modern lives and corporate culture. There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore (and frankly, why would you want to do the same job for your entire working life anyway?) and good things come to those who can adapt. They come even more quickly to those who keep one eye on the future and don’t become too complacent; those who are prepared to leap long before they are pushed.
To be successful in life we need to be like Sniff and Scurry, though for most people it’s far too easy to end up like Hem and Haw. Even if we don’t intend it, it’s all too easy to find ourselves becoming enmeshed in the safety net of our jobs and salaries and of the familiarity of the routine. That safety net becomes more restrictive as we settle deeper into it and pull it ever more tightly around us.
When the safety net is pulled away we are left floundering.
I didn’t learn anything new from Who Moved My Cheese? I’ve always felt restricted by safety nets. Although the security can provide a nice warm feeling to start with, it’s never long before I start feeling shackled rather than safe. I’ve always felt safer standing on my own two feet than relying on someone else for my cheese.
Even so, I know how sneaky those safety nets can be. One minute you’re thinking, ‘I’ll do this job for x months until I achieve y and then I’ll be gone’ and before you know it you’re worried about pensions, annual reviews, targets, promotions, benefits … the spider has well and truly spun its web and it’s too daunting to even think about extricating yourself.
I might not have learnt anything new from Who Moved My Cheese? but I enjoyed the way a belief that has always rumbled around the back of my mind has been worded so succinctly and in such a regaling way. I felt the clarity flooding my mind with light as I read it and finished the book feeling my path of ditching my job and wanting to do things my way has been affirmed.
When people doubt me in future, I’ll direct them to read Who Moved My Cheese? as Spencer Johnson has articulated my philosophy on life better than I ever could myself.
If you don’t have time to spare an hour to read the book, here’s a 15 minute animated version I found on YouTube.