Who the fuck moved my cheese?

 “Buddha, who moved my cheese?”
“What is cheese but part of the (w)hole?”

In another Journal flashback (from January 2000), here was my reaction to the book my brother’s employer bought for him, pop psychologist Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?

When we visited my brother’s family in Maryland last Thanksgiving, he showed me a book he had received from a high level manager at his work. I read it, but could not believe it was taking the corporate world by storm (as the book is packed with ugly cliches—I’ll take the liberty of using one as well), consistently appearing on the non-fiction bestseller list. It remains baffling to me what folks are finding so enlightening about this piece of garbage.

The story is called Who Moved my Cheese? And it is heralded as a modern day parable that somehow encapsulates the keys to business success and secretly relays it to its readers (presumably subconsciously) through a story targeted for folks with a forth grade reading level. In the story, a maze is occupied by two mice (Sniff and Scurry) and two miniature people (Hem and Haw). The four discover a windfall of cheese within the maze, and they all settle in to enjoy it. With a seemingly unending supply of cheese, the four maziens get a little torpid. Lo and behold, one morning they awaken to find that their cheese supply is gone. Vanished. Moved (an event which greatly influenced the title of the piece.) Sniff and Scurry (the rodents) react by immediately re-entering the maze in a renewed search for sustenance. The rodents’ reaction is apathetic and instinctive. “It was good while it lasted, no sense dwelling on it, let’s just go find some more cheese.” In other words, they instinctively react to the change by doing what needs to be done. The mini-men, on the other hand, react with an emotionally charged paralysis. The author, Spencer Johnson, belittles the human reaction of trying to reach “an understanding” of what the hell just happened. The mini-men whine and moan over their loss, refusing to leave their mined-out niche to venture out into that scary, scary maze again. Eventually, Haw, in order to keep from starving, ventures back out, coming to profoundly cliched insights along the way (leaving Hem behind to starve in perplexed self-pity—he sort of becomes like the unabomber.) The “parable” has been heralded as brilliantly addressing change management, but as far as I can tell it is more a caricatured embrace of reactive pragmatism.

Hem’s attention to detail pays off in a big way.

The maze seems to be a template for the environment of change, and the cheese is a goal. The most startling thing about these metaphors is that they clearly denounce the possibility of any type of metaphysics. It makes no sense to try to understand “a maze”—it represents chaos. The maziens must understand how to traverse the maze (Johnson suggests at the outset that humans are better than their rodent counterparts in methods of search because of their superior cognitive powers) but why waste time understanding “the nature” of the maze? Likewise, the cheese can be found—why waste time contemplating why that cheese is where it is and who put it there? As Washington Post writer Hank Stuever pointed out the story never answers the question its title asks: “who moved my cheese?” Rather it indicates that if you still feel the nagging urge to ask such a question you may be doomed to suffer Hem’s fate. I don’t think Johnson is trying to suggest that animal instincts are superior to human reasoning; however, he is clearly suggesting that while human reasoning is of immense value to problem-solving when applied pragmatically—it will be his undoing when he applies it ideologically. Put simply – “Use your mind for the purposes that it evolved, and if you want to succeed, try to temper those auxiliary functions that tempt us to want to fully understand “why”. Of the what, when, where, how and why questions, then, Johnson has the least use for “why”. I think this is the reason the story bugged me so much—“why” holds all the others together, conceptually it is the most important of them. And while I don’t suggest being distracted by it to the level of Archimedes (so the myth goes), humanity tends to gain the most from those obsessed with understanding the ‘why.’


One Comment to “Who the fuck moved my cheese?”

  1. joek 10 November 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Ugh. Thank you not for the flashbacks.

    Dena Harris, clearly more clever than I, has written an antidote for all this absurdity:


    Now why didn’t I think of that? Lost in my own maze, I suppose.

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