Who Moved My Cheese?

By: Simon Le Pine

On: 2011.12.01

Tagged: business planning, leadership, life long learning, personal, random, reading list,

A friend of mine recently gave me Who Moved My Cheese? because she can see some of my frustration. I read the entire book in a single day and I can't thank her enough, she read my situation well and gave me a great tool.

The gist of the story is, there's 2 mice and 2 men stuck in a maze who rely on cheese for food. One day their supply of cheese dries up, the mice being animals go off in search of a new food source. Meanwhile the 2 men get angry, blame someone else for taking their cheese, break down a wall to see if the cheese is on the other side, and are ultimately starving to death. Finally it comes to a head and 1 guy realizes he must move on and look for new cheese while the other refuses to change and believe if he waits the cheese will return.

I'm sure you can see how this is a metaphor for any life change, big or small. At the end of the story it turns out a guy is telling the story to a bunch of friends and they then reflect on how it impacts them. While reading the book I took a bunch of notes on how it affects me.

The little people made plans based on this cheese - The goals/desires are the same, the means to the end may change. For example, if your end-goal is retirement that stays the same even if you change jobs, careers, or location. Keep the end goal in mind and remember that you can always achieve it despite little changes along the way.

Hem argued he would get to the bottom of the missing cheese - Life is simple: problem->solution. You can learn lessons by thinking about or analysing the past but ultimate when changes happen the first, and most improtant, priority should be a solution.

Haw imaged the mice finding cheese and enjoying it - If people, situations, jobs, organizations are holding you back, move on. Don't leave a good opportunity for the delusion that someone has your best interests in mind, if they did they would want you to pursue good opportunities. Know who you are and stick to what is important to you. Haw stayed with his friend Hem way too long because Hem had him convinced it was the right thing when in fact Hem was simply afraid of change and being alone.

There's a difference between activity & productivity - People often find this in government and large organizations, they are working for the company rather than customers/stakeholders. How much of your daily life is devoted to filing, completing paper work, or fulfilling internal requirements. Likely that time is much more productive generating revenue or solving problems rather than feeding bureaucracy.

They were disappointed but believed they could solve the problem - In this case the problem was very simple, move on and look for a new source of cheese. Too often people over-analyse problems and believe they can "get to the bottom of the problem" but so often all that's required is a working solution. If you haven't solved the problem the cause of the problem isn't important.
It's because of this that I've realized I need to get better at quickly assessing problems and creating solutions. I've always been good at it in climbing & skiing because I've been doing those since I could walk but I could be much better in business.

He saw himself getting lost but eventually finding cheese. - Visualizing success is so often the domain of hippies, visionaries, and hopefuls but it's a valuable technique for anyone. If you can't visualize success you can't foresee potential problems and it's a big driver in achievement. Take some time to know what you want and know how it'll feel to get what you want.

While you have "cheese" continue you looking for more/better "cheese". Never loose your drive, hedge your bets, have backup plans, and use time wisely. In the story the men ate cheese, got fat, and lay around all day instead they could have been out looking for other sources of cheese thus hedging their bets in case the cheese disappeared or went bad. They also learned later on that it's easier to find new "cheese" while you're strong and well fed rather than when you're starving and week. You have to think about this reasonably and take it with a grain of salt, you can't live your personal relationships continually looking for a better one or go to work every day looking for a better job. But you can approach every day looking to make your current relationships better, making your job better, making yourself irreplaceable.

What would you do if you weren't afraid? - In the story their fear is very simple, the fear of starving, getting lost, or not finding cheese. Rarely in life is fear so simple or so easily identified. In addition, there's cultural fear (that's the way we've always done things) and there's personal fear (what if I don't have enough money for retirement). Bottom line, the first challenge is to fully & accurately identify fears and then figure out what they're preventing you from doing. In my experience it's actually very difficult to identify fears as we all believe we're infallible. At the end of the book one of the characters says "show of hands who here is afraid, one hand goes up" and then says "show of hands, who here believes others have fears, all hands go up". We understand others are afraid of things be refuse believe we are susceptible to those same fears.

Consider what you really have to loose - The man in the story is worried he's bitten off more than he can chew by leaving the site of the old cheese in search of new cheese. But when you think about it realistically, staying and waiting for cheese to return in the old place is just a big a risk/loss as going out in search of new cheese. Using the story as an example, if he dies looking for new cheese or waiting for the old cheese to return it doesn't matter, he's still dead. Similarly if he finds new cheese or the old cheese returns it doesn't matter, he eats & lives.

On a related note to the above, being in control is better than not. I would rather be in control of my decisions & outcomes and fail than be at the mercy of others and succeed by luck. At least when you fail, you have someone to blame, you can change course, you can learn from mistakes. When you let someone convince you to stay and wait for the cheese you leave the decision, and ultimate failure, to someone else.

Expect change to happen and look for it - You're a fool if you think change won't happen. Unfortunately in life change often happens so slowly we never see it coming but if you compare yourself now to 10 years ago, I can bet you're different. Compare technology now to 2 years ago, it's different. Compare the job market & economy, they're different too. In the story the man realizes if he'd been aware of change he would have noticed the cheese slowly depleting and could have been prepared for the inevitable day when it ran out. In my opinion the only way to learn from this in reality is to formalize the way in which you monitor for changes. In business you might have an annual planning meeting where you review the past year and predict future changes. In personal life you might keep a journal. In relationships you might sit down every week or every month for a check-in/check-up. Monitor for changes and they won't catch you by surprise.

Change can lead to something better - When the man finally did go out searching for cheese, he found enough scraps of cheese in the hallways of the maze to keep him going. Those small scraps of cheese are more than he got waiting for the old cheese to return. Small victories. Sometimes in the course of change you have to live day-to-day, paycheque-to-paycheque, moment to moment, or without a plan. Human nature is such that we are afraid of the unknown, but sometimes in the midst of a sudden change we have to improvise and work on the fly because there's not time to analyze and make a plan. Recognize when this happens and slow down and plan when you get a chance.

Be aware of, and careful about, wasted time - In this case they were wasting time questioning why the cheese was gone, blaming someone for taking it, and breaking down walls to see if cheese was hidden behind them. All of this was wasted time and made no meaningful progress towards getting more cheese. After a person is fired from their job, how often do they think about why they were fired, what went wrong, or what they could do differently none of which get's a new job. Solve the problem then analyze the solution.

Noting little changes now helps deal with big changes later on. - After the story is told the group of friends review how it affects them directly. What follows is my thoughts on that section of the book.

Who here is afraid of change, one hand. Who here thinks others are afraid of change, all hands go up - As noted above, we don't believe we are afraid but do believe that all others are afraid, it's sort of a god complex (I have nothing to be afraid of but others do). It's also a lesson in communication, people see themselves as they want to not as they are. Knowing that, you can use questions like "do you know anyone who..." or "do you believe that...". For example, you might ask someone "do you believe that people spend too much time on Facebook?", if you ask them if they spend too much time on Facebook they will adamantly deny it but they won't deny that others do. Similarly you might ask "do you know people who Google themselves?" because no one will admit to doing it but they do know others do.

In the story there are 4, well name, characters. There's Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw. You'll have to read the book to get the full idea of each personality type and it's worth while. Knowing if you're dealing with someone who typically rushes in, sniffs out solutions, or hems and haws will go a long way in communicating effectively. In fact, I'm going to create a document for myself outlining the 4 personalities so I can make better decisions/sales calls.

A change imposed is a change opposed - This has to be one of my favorite lines in the book. Marketers and leaders call it "buy-in", whatever you want to call it, if you can't convince someone of the value in what they're doing they will oppose doing it. This is applicable to any sale or negotiation, any business change, any relationship, any interaction. Human nature is inherently self serving and people will not do things that are not at least somewhat beneficial. Note I am not arguing that human nature is selfish, I am suggesting that human nature needs to see benefit in thoughts & actions.

In closing, I really appreciated reading this and I think I've gained some very valuable tools. I've only summarized the story and my lessons, it is not my intent to retell the story or take anything away from the book. I do not intend this to be a replacement for Who Moved My Cheese? and strongly encourage you to get your own copy and learn your own lessons.



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This is the blog of Simon Le Pine. I write about a number of varied topics including my technology startup, the insurance company I work for, my running/climbing/skiing, and the MBA I'm working towards. I organize posts into the following categories to make browsing by topic easy:

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