Trying to understand the phenomenon of Who Moved My Cheese?

“The best laid schemes
o’mice and men
often go astray.”

— Robert Burns

Spencer Johnson passed away a few weeks ago. He trained as a physician, but he will be forever best known as the author of Who Moved My Cheese? This publishing phenomenon is incredibly short. It took me about 30 minutes to read it the other day, and that’s only because the core story is padded out with a meta-discussion about the topic in the form of dialogue between random friends at a high school reunion. In the parable, four creatures attempt to cope with change. Two do so quite simply. Their cheese moves, they go find new cheese. Two others take more time because they get emotional about the situation. They have earned their cheese. They deserve it! Someone moved the cheese that they had come to rely on, and in the arrogance of success, they argue that it just isn’t fair. Let’s figure out who to blame! But blame, if satisfying, won’t bring the cheese back. When you accept that change has happened, you can move on and try to find a new way — and maybe even some better cheese.

The book has some good lines; when it comes to change, we “think more about what could go wrong than what could go right.” Facing a new situation, it might be helpful to ask “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” One of the characters notes that “Some fear should be respected, as it can keep you out of real danger.” But he also realizes that “most of his fears were irrational and had kept him from changing when he needed to.”

It seems some grown-ups really like their lessons in the form of fables. I suppose this isn’t surprising; the Bible has done pretty well as a teaching tool. Not that the prose of Who Moved My Cheese in any way approaches that of, say, the author of Gospel of Luke, but the concept is similar. Those of us in the writing business should deal with this as it is.

But there is some insightful marketing afoot here too. Who Moved My Cheese is teaching wisdom concealed in a story, and then the enlightened are supposed to preach it to others. In bulk! Indeed, there is a line in the meta-discussion for those pondering sharing the news that “It works best, of course, when everyone in your organization knows the story — whether it is in a large corporation, a small business, or your family — because an organization can only change when enough people in it change.” BRILLIANT. You might as well put the phone number for the bulk sales department right there in the text. And it gets better! The narrative suggests sharing the story with clients, and implying that you are the new cheese, not the old cheese your competitors are supplying.

I find this all fascinating. And so I have been reading many other fables: The Go-Giver, That’s Not How We Do It Here, etc. The good news is that reading them doesn’t take much time (three books in a day!) I do know from my speaking engagements that people love stories. While it seems crazy that someone pondering “hey, it’s hard to be as nimble as a start-up in a large organization” might then draw succor and inspiration from a tale of meerkats (the set-up of That’s Not How We Do It Here!) the sales figures show that this must be the case.

Of course, not everyone wants their leadership tales this way. After binging on parables, I began reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In this book we also learn how a wise man harnessed different temperaments to do great things. No mice or meerkats required!

Have you read any fables for grown-ups?

In other news: A much sadder note… One of the editors I worked with during my internship at USA Today in 2001-2002, and later as a member of their board of contributors, emailed me last week to tell me he was sick, and his doctors said he didn’t have much time. He was writing various people he’d worked with over the years to say goodbye. His timing was right on as usual; here’s his obituary from the Washington Post following his death this weekend. The people I worked with at USA Today during that time were amazing. Glen was so open to letting a 22-year-old girl try things; it takes a confident and patient man to do that. It was an amazing gift to me. He will be missed.

7 thoughts on “Trying to understand the phenomenon of Who Moved My Cheese?

  1. Fables for adults regarding leadership: I recommend _Friedman’s Fables_ by Edwin Friedman. They are short stories about emotional process in family and system relationships. Very useful for leaders.

  2. Laura, what a beautiful tribute to an important person in your life. I am touched by his writing you to say good-bye.
    What a year that was for you–ramen noodles, an attic bedroom, and the fires you could see at the Pentagon. Maybe you should write a blog about your memories of that year. You did have great mentors but you created opportunities for yourself as well.

  3. You should check out “Polar Bear Pirates and their quest to reach fat city…” It’s even subtitled “A Grown Ups’ Book For Kids At Work” — definitely the feel of a children’s book.

  4. Because of the question “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” I changed jobs a few years ago, and VERY recently pitched a column to a local paper. (Fingers crossed!)

    Even so, I guess management fables aren’t for me. I found Who Moved My Cheese? tedious and preachy; I MUCH preferred Team of Rivals!

    1. @Ruth – way to go on pitching the column! My fingers are crossed for you. And yes, Team of Rivals is in a different dimension of leadership books than, say, the average fable. I am 200 pages in…550 to go.

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