“Who Moved My Cheese?” … a Playbook to Manage Change


A Quick Introduction:

Change is a hard thing. It frightens us easily, because it often means moving outside our comfort zone and into unfamiliar waters. All too often, we’re reluctant to dive in, clinging to the cozy, time-proven raft of our current routine…even if said raft is springing leaks, and starting to sink.

Under such circumstances, what do we do? What CAN we do? Where do we even START?

Enter Dr. Spencer Johnson, who provides the answer in the form of a question: “Who Moved My Cheese?”

Or rather, a witty slice of self-help and allegory rolled together into a book whose brevity and simplicity carry a zen-like quality that leaves its message easily understood.

As a side note, “Who Moved My Cheese” has played an important role in my life, being one of the last books I read before making the decision to leave my secure corporate-job and start a new business from scratch.

What It’s All About:

The story follows two pairs of roomies—Sniff and Scurry (two mice), and Hem and Haw (Two humans who are as small as their rodent neighbors). Both parties have taken up residence in a maze, which they search daily for cheese.

One day, both pairs of intrepid maze-hunters hit the jackpot when they find a part of the labyrinth that’s been helpfully labeled “Cheese Station C.” And sure enough, the hall’s loaded with cheese…enough for the mice and the humans to share comfortably. And so they do—Hem and Haw, in particular, end up building a routine that centers around visiting the corridor daily, allowing them to eat their fill without having to go any further into the maze.

All in all, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Until Cheese Station C runs dry.

The mice and the humans take this unwelcome development in different ways. Now Sniff and Scurry, they noticed the cheese supply starting to peter out beforehand; and as such, they set out to begin looking for more cheese without complaint–daunting as the task is, Sniff and Scurry knew it was going to happen, and braced themselves to begin the search once again.

As for their human counterparts, Hem and Haw…well, that’s where things get interesting. They were entirely reliant on Cheese Station C, and this change catches them off-guard. And such stress wears them down. They complain about their predicament. Then they start blaming each other. All the while, they get hungrier and hungrier, wallowing in their own despair and dread.

Unlike the mice, however, the humans end up taking two separate paths. Hem is paralyzed by his anger and dismay, refusing to depart from his comfortable routine to search for more cheese. Haw, on the other hand, eventually realizes how ludicrous his crippling fear of change has become, and ends up laughing at his own complacency. Thus does Hem cling stubbornly to the empty corridor, while Haw ventures forth into the vast maze.

During his journey, Haw is beset by various questions, fueled by doubt. Should he have undertaken this trek sooner? Was the trek a bad idea? And just what could be waiting out there, beyond the routine that he’d become so comfortable with? Despite these fears, Haw presses on, finding leftover bits of cheese from other empty Cheese Stations. Meager though they are, these fragments of foodstuff nourish him, and he returns to Hem to share his findings.

Sadly, Hem is too consumed by his adamant refusal to change, and spurns this gift. With little other choice, Haw heads back into the maze, but not before leaving a message on the wall that he hopes will galvanize his friend to action: “If you don’t change, you can become extinct.”

As his quest continues, Haw continues to ponder his situation. Slowly, he comes to greater understanding of his predicament, and how he might learn from it for the future. Thus enlightened, he decides to write his epiphanies on the walls of each path he takes. These, he hopes, will not only help him find his way back if he gets lost, but also provide guidance to Hem if the latter begins his own search.

Eventually, Haw finds his way to another Cheese Station (one that Sniff and Scurry have long since found on their own). After partaking of the vast stores of cheese—including several new varieties that weren’t available back at Cheese Station C—Haw contemplates returning to Hem to show him this new source of food. Alas, he comes to the difficult understanding that he can’t talk Hem into such a change—his earlier refusal of Haw’s offerings of cheese are proof of that. Instead, Hem must decide to seek this new path on his own, just as Haw himself did.

As the story reaches its end, Haw has taken his experiences to heart—while he continues to sample the cheeses of the new Cheese Station, he also explores other parts of the maze so that he’ll be better prepared for future changes. To ensure he doesn’t forget the lessons he learned on his journey, Haw writes them down on one of the Cheese Station’s walls, providing the overall aesop of the tale:

  1. Change Happens
  2. Anticipate Change
  3. Monitor Change
  4. Adapt to Change Quickly
  5. Change
  6. Enjoy Change
  7. Be Ready to Change Quickly and Enjoy it Again

The Moral of the Story:

Does the story’s plot sound like it might have come from the works of Dr. Seuss? Sure it does. But there’s nothing wrong with that…there’s always been a deeper meaning behind such whimsical tales, sticking with the reader even if they don’t fully understand it at the time. And such is the case here—there’s a profound lesson, if one reads between the lines and accepts certain elements of the tale as metaphor.

The maze of the story represents our lives, branching into complex paths with no clear end. All too often, there’s no sign of a reward at the end of the path we’re on, making us wonder if it’s really worth the effort at all. But we won’t know unless we keep moving forward; and by keeping track of what we’ve learned along the way, it’ll be a lot easier to avoid getting lost.

And the cheese? Far more than just the breakfast of rodent champions—for the purposes of this tale, it represents everything that humans seek in life (wealth, happiness, love, etc). We have to exert ourselves to achieve these things, just as mice in a maze must to find the cheese. However, by embracing change, we can discover new forms of reward that we might never have experienced before…new flavors of “cheese” that reward our broadening horizons.