Book Review: “Who Moved My Cheese?”

“”Be a good animal, true to your animal instincts.”” – D.H. Lawrence

“Who Moved My Cheese?” – the best seller by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson – is a small book (94 pages with wide margins). It is arranged in three parts: a fable wrapped between two made-up conversations.

I’ve got to tell you, I have a strong aversion to self-help books written by Ph.D.s. A college professor or psychologist writing about business steps up to my batter’s box with two strikes against him: a lack of practical experience and an academic approach to the subject.

I opened “Who Moved My Cheese?” with those prejudices – and yet it won me over. It is essentially a child’s story that says something about human nature, happiness, and change.

Just In Case Someone Quizzes You At An Office Party . . .

The story itself is simple. Once, long ago and far away, there lived four little characters who ran through a maze looking for cheese. Two – Sniff and Scurry – were mice. The other two – Hem and Haw – were little people. Each eventually found his favorite type of cheese at the end of Cheese Station C. When the cheese supply ran out, Sniff and Scurry went right into action looking for new cheese, because they had never abandoned their animal instincts. Hem and Haw, in contrast, waited around at Station C, complaining about their bad luck.

Sniff and Scurry finally found new cheese, but Hem and Haw stayed put in Station C hoping something would change. Finally Haw realized how ridiculous his behavior had been and left Hem alone in order to search for new cheese. For a long while, he had no success. Sometimes, he doubted he would ever find it. But then one day, when he had wandered far into an unfamiliar part of the maze, he came upon new cheese again.

It will cost you 20 bucks and take you about an hour to read “Who Moved My Cheese?” It’s probably worth the investment, because there is a chance that during that time you will think about your own relationship to change – and that might change you.

Like any good fable, “Who Moved My Cheese?” can be read in many ways. On one level, it’s a story about the welfare state – how a reliance on government makes people lazy and helpless. On another level, it’s about the need to accept change. On still another, it’s a fable about process vs. ends.

However you read it, one idea stands out: To be successful in life, you have to keep moving.

That’s not a very popular idea. Most people want to do as little moving as possible. They show up for work and then . . . well . . . not much happens. It’s as if they think life is a contest – and he who gets away with doing the least wins.

I remember when I was a kid, working in a warehouse. I was way up near the ceiling, crawling around on the third level of a huge steel shelving structure that was packed with boxes of I don’t know what. I was looking for something. I removed one box to look behind it and discovered an interior path, illuminated somehow. I followed it around, and it opened into a sort of anteroom made out of boxes with box-chairs and a box-table on which a pack of cards sat. Beyond the anteroom were music and the source of the light I had been following. I crawled through to find Old Charlie lying on a box, drinking a beer, and listening to Aretha Franklin.

“Charlie!” I said. “What the hell is this place?”

“It’s where I spend my time,” he said.

“Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to catch you?”

“Hell, no!” he said. “I ain’t the only body be resting up here.”

As it turned out, Charlie’s place was a clandestine boxed country club, not only for Charlie (and now me) but also for the union shop steward and the two warehouse managers who could have put an end to it.

“Don’t nobody want to work all day long,” Old Charlie explained.

For the rest of that summer, Old Charlie was a god to me. Every thing he did (or didn’t do), I’d emulate. Every word he spoke, I took as gospel. But somewhere along the way I noticed something – the days were dragging by. And I never found the peace of mind Old Charlie had in such abundance.

I do think life gives us two choices. We can get through it doing as little as possible. Or we can work hard and try to build something.

I never had the frame of mind to do it Old Charlie’s way. Not working was just too hard for me. But I never forgot how graceful Old Charlie’s slothfulness seemed. It seemed a more advanced way of being.

But we are what we are. And if you’ve been reading ETR for a while, you are probably not a guru of laziness and probably never will be. You are a worker – a natural born mover and shaker – but one who has a little bit of Old Charlie in his soul. When you want to slow down – or do nothing at all – it’s Old Charlie tempting you.

“Who Moved My Cheese?”does not allow for the Old Charlie in you. It posits a world where success and happiness are the byproducts of work. And that’s fine, because that is the world we ETRs have chosen to live in. When it comes to making money, building business, and creating wealth, prosperity, and value – nothing works like work.

“Who Moved My Cheese?” reminds us that we can’t stop moving. That we must always be pushing, always be trying new things, and always be ready to change.

Businesses that stagnate degenerate. Businesspeople who don’t keep moving eventually fail. Think of yourself as a shark. If you stop going forward, you die. Yet, so many businesspeople find a limited amount of success and then stop. You can see it almost anywhere you look. The restaurant that has a good location but serves mediocre food. It is making a modest profit, so the owner assumes things will get better in the future. But things get worse. “It’s the market,” the owner thinks, “a temporary slowdown that can’t be avoided. I’ll just sit and wait.”

As a customer, you know what the problem is. The pasta is soggy and the tomato sauce is tasteless. But since the owner wants most of all to do nothing, he never asks your opinion. You don’t tell him. He doesn’t know. And the food gets no better. Two years later, he is bankrupt – and he still doesn’t know why.

In the direct-marketing business, I see managers who stop testing new promotions once they find one that works. “Finally, I have something I can count on,” they think. And so they sit back and relax a little. Six months later, they get their first serious warning. Results are flat. “It must be a glitch in the market,” they think. “Let’s see what happens the next time we mail.” What happens is that the results are even worse. But by then, it is way too late to fix the problem. Profits are down.

It doesn’t matter what you do – whether you own a business or work for one – and it doesn’t matter what industry you are in. Unless you keep moving and changing, you will fall behind.

Something You Can Promise Yourself . . .

Don’t be satisfied with your product/service. However good it is, there is some way to make it better. Speak to your customers. Consult with experts. Examine it yourself. Find some way to improve it. And when you are done, do it again.

Do the same thing with your marketing. Create a successful promotion. Than the moment you know it’s working, start looking for another one to replace it. Spend the money. Devote the time. Believe that the end is nearer than you expect. It usually is.

And with your business plan, expect change too. Anticipate that your customers will change. They will become richer or poorer, older or younger, smarter or dumber, cooler or lamer. Know that your employees will change too. They will move or quit, die or become disabled (hey . . . let’s be honest), become disenchanted or enchanted elsewhere. Same thing with your vendors, consultants, and colleagues.

Expect change. Welcome change. Don’t ever stop changing.

Here’s what Spencer Johnson, Ph.D., has to say about finding new cheese:

1. Smell the cheese often, so you know when it’s getting old.

2. When you move beyond your fear, you feel free.

3. The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.

4. It is safer to search in the maze than to remain in a cheeseless situation.

5. Move with the cheese and enjoy it.