No matter what environment we operate in — whether a town, city, family, relationship, workplace, or other setting — change is inevitable. “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson is a parable about a place that changed, and how its inhabitants reacted.
Through the characters’ triumphs and travails, Who Moved My Cheese offers lessons and tips for coping successfully with change in our lives by changing our attitudes and behavior.
Who Moved My Cheese Characters
The parable unfolds in a maze, where four Who Moved My Cheese characters — two mice (Sniff and Scurry) and two tiny humans (Hem and Haw), search for cheese, which represents happiness. They get pretty good at this. The mice use their simple, rodent-specific talents of sniffing out cheese and scurrying around until they find it. Hem and Haw use their human thinking and analytical skills to also find cheese. They find a huge supply and all four enjoy its benefits for quite a while.
One day the maze dwellers confront a crisis: The cheese is gone. All four characters must adapt in one way or another to their changed circumstances.
The mice characters Sniff and Scurry are the best equipped at the outset.
- They’re not surprised at the change because they noticed it happening. They stayed observant and noticed that the cheese was getting old and the pile was shrinking.
- They’re ready to act because they’ve stayed alert and anticipated change.
- They act quickly to adapt – they immediately put on their running shoes, which they’ve kept at the ready, and set out to find new cheese.
- They’re persistent, eventually finding a new stockpile.
- Even with new cheese at hand, they monitor the situation and check around for new supplies because they know things will change again.
Because he rejects change, Hem is the Who Moved My Cheese character most people wouldn’t want to be, but we all probably share some of his characteristics some of the time.
- Hem has come to regard the cheese as his entitlement. He feels he deserves it.
- When the cheese disappears, he complains about the unfairness. He gets angry and seeks someone to blame.
- Hem denies reality, believing and insisting to Haw that the cheese will reappear.
- Hem holds onto the past. He thinks that digging in and doing what he’s done in the past will negate change. (He keeps exploring the neighboring area for cheese, instead of venturing out for new cheese)
- And despite a lack of success, and despite the fact that he is hurting himself, Hem refuses to act any differently.
Haw is the Who Moved My Cheese character who experiences the most change in the story. Initially, like Haw, he’s upset, overwhelmed and also in shock that the cheese has disappeared. At first he follows Hem’s lead in sitting around complaining and waiting for the cheese to reappear. He whines about the injustice of it all.
But eventually Haw realizes that things aren’t going to improve unless he acts. Despite Hem’s attempts to discourage him, Haw strikes out on his own to find new cheese. He is afraid of failing, but he overcomes his fear by asking himself, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” He keeps going.
Taking control increases his confidence, and he starts to enjoy moving in a new direction. He finds some small pieces of new cheese, which he takes back to the starting point to share with Hem, but Hem isn’t interested in trying the new cheese or looking for more. He still just wants things to return to the way they used to be. Haw realizes he can’t change Hem — Hem will have to change himself, or not.
So Haw returns to his search for new cheese, and finally comes upon the large new stockpile that the mice had found earlier. After celebrating success, he reflects on the experience and pledges to anticipate change and adapt quickly in the future. He’s the Who Moved My Cheese character who experiences the greatest personal change, and adapts to change himself.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Who Moved My Cheese summary:
- The absolute worst thing to do when change is coming
- How to adapt to change, like the key characters
- How to handle change in work and life