Book Summary: Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson
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1-Page Book Summary of Who Moved My Cheese?
“Who Moved My Cheese,” a bestseller by Spencer Johnson published in 1998, is a parable about the inevitability of change, the ways in which we typically deal with it, and how revising our attitude toward change can reduce stress and increase success. Like all parables, it’s told as a story that you can relate clearly to your life.
The story takes place in a maze, where four characters search for and consume cheese. Cheese represents happiness or satisfaction in its various forms — for instance, security, prestige, or wealth.
Two characters, Sniff and Scurry, are mice who take an industrious, uncomplicated trial-and-error approach to finding cheese, They don’t overthink things, instead trying out various routes until one day they find a large store of cheese.
The other two characters, Hem and Haw, are little humans who apply more sophisticated thinking and analytical skills to the daily search. They, too, find the same large stockpile of cheese as the mice.
But the two have very different attitudes toward their situation. The humans Hem and Haw take the cheese for granted, assuming it will always be there. By contrast, the mice stay alert to their surroundings. They notice that the quality and supply of the cheese are slowly dwindling.
One day the cheese is gone. How the characters cope with this change offers lessons in surviving and thriving despite the inevitable changes in life and the workplace.
The simple-minded mice don’t overthink things. They quickly accept the changed situation for what it is, not cursing the world or the environment for its unfairness. They adapt to the change and immediately head out to look for new cheese. And while it takes concerted effort, they eventually find happiness in the form of a huge new pile of cheese.
In contrast, the humans Hem and Haw are shocked to lose the cheese. They had felt entitled to it, and they curse the world for its unfairness. They sit around, waiting for the cheese to reappear, and they become increasingly frustrated when it doesn’t. Hem yells, “Who moved my cheese?”
Eventually, hunger gnawing at him, Haw realizes his situation isn’t going to improve unless he changes his attitude and behavior. Going back out to the maze to find new cheese is scary, and it’ll take hard work. But he envisions the joy of finding cheese again, and it pushes him outward. He leaves behind Hem, who refuses to move and continues fuming at the unfairness of his situation.
In his journey, Haw overcomes his psychological barriers to adapting to change. He realizes that his fear of going back out to find new cheese was overblown — he had let the fear build up in his mind, and in reality it wasn’t that bad. He encounters setbacks in the maze, but he realizes he’s still happier taking control rather than being a victim of his situation. He continues imagining enjoying new cheese, which motivates him to push further. As he learns each of these lessons, he writes messages on the wall for Hem to read, should he ever decide to search for new cheese himself.
Finally, he finds a new giant pile of cheese, even bigger than the first. Sniff and Scurry have already been there for some time, happily enjoying the cheese. Haw reflects on how far he has come since the first cheese pile ran out, and he resolves to treat future change differently.
It’s easy to draw parallels from the story to unsettling changes in our own lives — for instance, changes in a job, relationship, or health. The characters’ flaws and successes reflect our own tendencies when confronting...
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Who Moved My Cheese? Summary The Story
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, the story offers lessons and tips for coping successfully with change in our lives by changing our attitudes and behavior.
The parable unfolds in a maze, where four 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 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 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,...
Shortform Exercise: Reflecting on the Story
This simple parable can give you insights into your own attitudes about change, which can help you be more successful in the future.
Which character would you most prefer to be lost in a maze with, and why? (Sniff, Scurry, Hem, or Haw)
Who Moved My Cheese? Summary Applying the Lessons
Two chapters appearing before and after the cheese story (The Gathering and The Discussion) recount conversations among friends dealing with change and considering how to apply the lessons of the story in their lives and workplaces.
These may be useful in prompting reflection on changes in your life and how you’ve coped, as well as suggesting areas in which the principles could be helpful. For instance, you might understand what’s going wrong in a relationship, or how to deal with a recent change in your career or life.
(On the other hand, you might also take a second to reflect on the narrative and what it means to you, before reading on.)
As old friends at a reunion compare their lives and confess to being unsettled by change, one classmate relates the cheese story. The friends talk about which characters they resembled when experiencing change. Some lessons or conclusions they share from their lives are:
- If you stubbornly resist change at work, you could end up being fired or let go. The same can happen if you fail to notice change because your mindset is anchored in the past.
- A family retail business that doesn’t change its ways, or change fast enough, to compete with mega-stores could find itself out of business. In a case like this, it might have been better to initiate change than to react to it later.
- A business that’s been successful in the past (for example, an encyclopedia-selling business) cannot rely on its business model working forever. (Cheese eventually runs out.)
- An important role of managers is to lead employees uncertain about or fearful of change, by painting a picture of success they can get excited about. (Picture the new cheese.)
- From a management standpoint, understanding which characters your employees emulate can help you to help them adapt, while benefiting the company as a whole.
- Sniffs can help a company innovate by sniffing out opportunity.
- Action-oriented Scurrys can get things done.
- Haws are hesitant but can adapt with encouragement.
- Hems may...
Who Moved My Cheese? Summary A Guide to Change
Change is inevitable, but it can be addressed successfully. Here’s a guide on what to do, and what not to do.
What to do to handle change successfully:
Be prepared for change: Pay attention to signs of change in your environment, whether it’s layoffs at your workplace, new aches and pains, or strains in your home life. Consider how potential changes could affect you and develop a plan to handle them - for instance, by learning new skills.
- In the story: Mice Sniff and Scurry noticed the cheese stockpile getting old and dwindling. They were ready (they kept their running shoes handy) to search for a new supply when the old one disappeared.
Let go of the past: When things change, move forward quickly. The longer you wait, the more resistance you build to moving, and the harder it’ll be to adapt later.
- In the story: Sniff and Scurry were action-oriented, and set off immediately to search for new cheese. It helped that they also kept things simple and didn’t overanalyze or overcomplicate things by, for instance, getting hung up on “what if’s.”
- In the story: Initially, Haw also stayed with Hem and wished for things to return to normal. But Haw came to his senses and realized the world had changed, and he had to change with it. Later he concluded that adapting to change is easier the less you wait.
- Many people who finally muster the courage to leave a job or relationship that’s not working for them, often wonder in retrospect why they hadn’t made the change sooner.
Adapt—Be open-minded to new things: There are always experiences and opportunities available beyond those you are currently familiar with. You might like them even more than what you used to have.
- In the story: Haw found bits of new kinds of cheese (eg brie instead of the cheddar he was used to), and he tried them and liked them. This gave him confidence to keep pushing forward to even better experiences. (He tried sharing the new types of cheese with Hem but Hem rejected them, saying he wanted only the types he was familiar with.)
Who Moved My Cheese? Summary Putting It All Together
(Shortform exclusive section)
Let’s put it all together by talking about a common change in many people’s lives — job changes. If your job is redefined or eliminated, applying the principles in “Who Moved My Cheese” can help you deal with it successfully.
To start with, watch for change by paying attention to company statements, workload and structural changes, and industry trends. If you sniff out change, you can prepare for change by getting your personal finances in order, adding a part-time job, learning a new skill to develop your job in a different direction, or moving to a new company.
Don’t try to hold on to the past (don’t wait for the cheese to reappear) by ignoring warning signs, resisting new skill requirements, or by just working harder at what you know. Changing work can be scary, and it’s tempting to be in denial, but the longer you do this, the more you hurt yourself.
To combat the fear, envision something better (picture new cheese) — this can be an opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do, but couldn’t because the job tied you down. Now that you’re free of old constraints, imagine yourself succeeding in a new role. Focus on what you can gain through change rather than what you might lose. Possibilities include a chance to use latent creativity in a different job, having new experiences, or moving to a different part of the world.
Don’t let fear paralyze or hold you back from trying...
Shortform Exercise: Prepare for Change
Change is natural. If you pay attention, you might detect the change coming long before it happens.
Are there some signs of change in your workplace or personal life? What are they, and what change might be coming?
Shortform Exercise: Picture Success
Picturing what success looks like, and imagining yourself succeeding, can help you get there.
What would be your equivalent of sitting on a large pile of cheese? Picture your success in vivid detail - what does the world look like? What are you doing? How do you feel? How do others feel?
Shortform Exercise: Overcome Fear
Even when you recognize that you must “move with the cheese,” it can be difficult to leave your comfort zone due to fear.
When’s a time you overcame your fear in the past? What was the result? How did your life improve (or not)?
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Shortform Exercise: Avoid Overanalyzing
When we notice change occurring, we may waste time overanalyzing what’s already happened or what might happen, instead of simply taking action to move forward.
Think about a time when overanalyzing held you back. How did you eventually move forward?
Shortform Exercise: Prepare for Continuous Change
If you expect change to happen, you’ll be better prepared when it does. Think about how to better prepare for changes.
How could your company or organization better prepare for unexpected changes?