The Cheese Has Moved. Have You?
The bestseller by Spencer Johnson came out in 1998. Nearly 22 years later, in the midst pandemic bringing everlasting change, the lessons from that book are truer than ever.
Who Moved My Cheese? is one of my all time favourite books. It’s a story within a story. The basic setting is around a group of people meeting after their high school reunion, with their own share of regrets and pains in life. One of them (Michael), shares a story about a Maze, two mice and two Littlepeople with an underlying message of change like no other.
It’s a timeless book and in my humble opinion should honestly be made a compulsory read. I recently revisited this book and there are some interesting insights from this book, that one can take along for the ride during these trying times of the pandemic and life after.
If you have read the book, you could skip the immediate section ahead straight for the lesson. If you haven’t I’d suggest giving the section a read to know the story.
The Real Story
The story shared by Michael is fairly simple. There are two mice, Sniff and Scurry and there are two Littlepeople Hem and Haw (Littlepeople are basically mice sized humans). They’re in a maze and each day they leave their house with a purpose. The mice look for cheese while the Littlepeople look for Cheese. Cheese with a capital C, can be anything right from money, happiness, satisfaction, employment etc. Any human desire you hold most dear.
The four protagonists looks for their Cheeses in pairs. Both pairs move around the maze and hit roadblocks. Right from the beginning, Johnson makes it clear that the mice are more quick to experiment, fail and retry as opposed to the Littlepeople. Eventually both pairs find their cheese and all is soon well. They are satisfied with their cheese and consume it everyday. Through subtle hints, you observe that the mice are cautious while the Littlepeople are slowly succumbing to arrogance of their success and are now complacent.
One day, the cheese is over. The mice waste no further time and run off to find new cheese. The Littlepeople on the other hand are overcome with emotion. They try all the tricks in the book right from victimising themselves to denial to waiting for the Cheese to reappear but it never does. And that’s where the real journey begins.
Hem and Haw waste a lot of time lamenting, grieving and complaining about what’s been lost. However after an initial period of denial, Haw starts to realise that maybe it’s time to move on. But, Hem continues to pout and be stubborn. Haw ultimately breaks free from his companion and moves on. After some small successes but mostly large failures, Haw wishes to give up too. But he keeps visualising his New Cheese. He keeps visualising all the way and finally find his New Cheese. It’s a section filled with all the Cheeses he has wanted and desired. He sits down to enjoy them. But this time, he isn’t passive. His long arduos journey has taught him how not to be complacent. So now, he prepares himself to expect change.
And what of Hem you ask? Hem never really moves out of the old section. While throughout Haw wishes he would, he realises that some Littlepeople are beyond change.
What is the Cheese?
Now as I mentioned, the Littlepeople are just miniature human beings. Cheese is what they desire to be happy. It could be material possessions, satisfaction, love, health, business or even actual cheese. The Maze is a metaphor for life.
Very simply translated, the book talks about how after we find our Cheese in life, we are drawn to a complacent lifestyle but when change strikes us we are unprepared and our Cheese vanishes.
Rather than going out to search for more Cheese or even New Cheese, we sit in lamenting and complaining over that which has been lost. But if we just poke our heads out and make a step, we could find some amazing Cheese. If we just try long enough. After all, the universe loves a stubborn heart.
The Story and its Lessons, Today
This books is a fairly simple story to understand. It’s a story about our aversion to change and our tendency to very quickly fall into a comfortzone. We never anticipate change. We never think it will happen to us. And when it does strike us, chances are we either wait for things to go back to normal or we lament time on what’s been lost. Very few of us actually sit and think about reinventing. It also very subtly talks about how sometimes, the voices around us too, contribute to staying exactly as we are, even though out situation is screaming for us to move on!
This is extremely crucial today. The pandemic has caused disruption not just professionally for us, but also personally. Our Cheese has long moved on. Lost jobs, failed businesses, no income, troubled personal relationships are all manifestations of our lost Cheese. However, much like Hem and Haw, we are investing a fair amount of time right now in lamenting over the loss rather than getting up.Maybe it’s time for us to get up and run after the New Cheese.
Here are some of the lessons we can take with us.
You Cannot Deny Change
You cannot always predict the form of the change, but you have to be prepared for it.
Our brains are the most wonderful weapon in our arsenals. However, in times of uncertainty such as these, they go into overdrive. We will sit for hours and analyze how we could have made this situation better. How we could have said or not said something which wouldn’t have brought us here. For eg: if you had never asked her out, she wouldn’t have rejected you.
To put it in light of the context today, maybe you’re cash strapped and are now facing strained finances. What you can do is assess your finances, cut your expenses and dip into savings or if possible borrow from family. What you will do however is lament on how you should have used your bonus to pay off a chunk off the debt or followed the 10% savings rule. Trust me, I know. It’s where I am right now. Prior to revisting the book, I wasted most waking hours thinking about lumpsums of money I could have put into paying off my consumer debt. But alas! I didn’t.
Another wonderful thing we do is we shut ourselves off. Complete denial. Ostrich in the mud kind of deal.That’s not helping either. We think it will never happen to us.
“The pandemic will never reach our countries. We’re too far off!”
And yet, here we all are. Some of us had a few weeks of time to prepare. In some cases even longer. Did we? Probably not. We were too busy drowning the noise out.
Why? Because we are so keen and desperate to want things to stay as they are. But if history or even daily life is any evidence, they never are. We victimise, we blame, we complain. We try everything in the book except taking action. Because what can you do once the change has come, right?
Your Only Choice Is To Move In The Maze
The Cheese has already long gone. Yet we keep turning to the same places to find them. Just as Hem and Haw kept returning to Station C for long after their Cheese was over and Sniff and Scurry had already found new cheese.
You will not find Cheese in the place that no longer houses it. You have to move and find new sources of Cheese. So if your Cheese was income and your day job can no longer provide it, you scurry in the Maze to find New Cheese. Easier said than done, but it’ll never happen unless you put on your running shoes, step outside Station C and run around the maze to find your New Station. The thing with the mice was that they didn’t overanalyze. They knew action was needed and along with that experimentation. They ran all over the place, when into more Cheese Stations than they would care to admit, till they eventually found their Cheese Station.
You will reach junctions at times where you will find hope but realise that it’s not enough or not what you’re looking for. You extract what you can and move on. The Maze of Life only requires you to keep moving on.
Better Late Than Never
Chances are that you are already feeling overwhelemd by all that has happened and are now wondering, “Is it even worthwhile to move? The others have already used up all the first mover advantages!”
Valid concern mixed with a slightly irrational belief. Yes, perhaps you’ve lost the first mover advantage, but you can always take the second mover or the seventy seventh mover advantage. Each mover has their own advantage.
In the story, Haw is certainly not the first mover, but he does find New Cheese. He himself realises that he is late but it’s better than never having moved at all. He knows that if Sniff and Scurry could do it, so can he.
Your Cheese Should Change
The post pandemic world will be very different from the one we went into this with. Our requirement of Cheese was tailored to fit into the paradigm of the old world but now it’s expiring. It’s time for our Cheese to change too. We need to look within and see what we really require from our lives.
Everyone definitely has had some existential thoughts and maybe even crises right now. It’s a luxury to be able to do so right now, but just this time, let’s address them and not brush them under the carpet. Something good could just come right out of this.
We cannot go on having the same expectations from life. Perhaps the new world will not be equipped to give us that. Maybe it’s time to look for the ‘New’ in the New Cheese.
Bonus Lesson: Leave Messages For Your Hems
This is a lesson I’ve personally realised when reading this book, which the author never explicitly points towards but does so subtly. There are some people who will always be averse to change. They will sit back and wait for things to go back to ‘normal’. But they won’t. They never do. The change becomes the ‘new normal’. And such people do at times dissuade those who are ready to go on with the tide. They are ‘entitled’. They feel that since they did nothing to cause this change, they shouldn’t have to suffer. Which is true. They didn’t cause this. But now its here. How will they survive?
Your strength, dream and determination that will get you out of there. And there is no guilt in chasing them. If you’re doing the grown up thing by embracing the chaos: Welcome to the party pal!
At the same time, there is no reason for you to be condescending or patronising to those who don’t move on. There’s only so many times that you can explain it to them. And since you’ve probably crossed that point, it’s perfectly fine to go and find your New Cheese. This doesn’t always mean abandoning such influences, but it definitely means tuning out their opinions in context of the change and the future. it is perfectly acceptable to break free from those holding you back. And the breaking free can be a version that you find acceptable.
Haw leaves behind a flurry of quotes for Hem. Should he ever choose to leave the Cheese Station C and needs to find his way to Haw and New Cheese, all he has to do is follow Haw’s quotes. That is the kindness you can and should do. Let them make their own choices as you make your own. Don’t be afraid to go out on your own. And if they want to find their way back to you, there are always the quotes on the wall.
The book is filled with these little lessons throughout. The lessons are imparted to you in the form of these quotes that Haw writes on the walls to remind himself of these things. I would sincerely advice everyone to just read those quotes/messages if not the whole book. It’ll change your perspective on a lot of things in these troubled times.
May you all find your Cheese in the Maze out there!