Discover why you shouldn't resist change and how to embrace it with our summary of "Who Moved My Cheese" by Dr. Spencer Johnson.
No one likes it when someone touches their personal stuff. Who has been drinking from my cup? Who has been sleeping in my bed? You probably remember how angry the Three Bears were when they saw a mess Goldilocks made in their house.
“Who moved my cheese?!” - cries a human in Spencer Johnson’s short story, and you may think they have the right to be furious. But wait a minute. Don’t be sorry for them yet.
“Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life” by Dr. Spencer Johnson is a great book. Its format is unusual: it is a short story within a short story. Johnson, who was an American physician and a lecturer at the Harvard Business School, resorts to an ancient Greek technique of story-telling – parable, and explains its meaning in the other dimension of the book, also fictional but written as a typical narrative.
The plot is very simple: a group of classmates gather after their school reunion, telling each other about their lives and career. One of them – Michael – mentions a parable that helped him improve both his work and life. This parable is called “Who Moved My Cheese”, and it’s about change. Michael retells it, and the next day they gather again, having analyzed their own experience through the lenses of the parable’s wisdom, and to share their conclusions.
Below we've summarized both the parable and the classmate’s discussion part.
There are four main characters in the story: two mice and two little people. Every day, they run through a Maze looking for cheese. For the mice, cheese is just food, and trying to find it, they are directed by their simple instincts. For the little people, however, cheese - with a capital C - means something different: it’s a metaphor for anything that can be desired. Little people have complex brains, and they live by emotions and thoughts.
The four characters have speaking names that reflect the way they act in the story. The mice are called Sniff (because he sniffs the change) and Scurry (because he scurries into action); the little people are Hem and Haw – from the idiom “to hem and haw”, which means “to hesitate”.
The mice and the little people look for cheese in labyrinths of corridors, and one day, they all find it – in Section C. They’re happy, and every morning, they go back there to enjoy the cheese.
The mice remain cautious though: they tie their running shoes and hang them around their necks in case they’re needed again. Before running to Section C, they still inspect the area to see if there is any sign of a possible change.
Unlike them, Hem and Haw get relaxed and put their running gear away. They think they’re entitled to have the Cheese, for the only reason it took them so much effort to find it.
But one day, the cheese disappears.
Sniff the Scurry don’t overanalyze the situation. They simply put on their shoes and start running again – in search of New Cheese. After some unsuccessful attempts, they find it in Section N, seeing a pile of fresh cheese, many sorts of which are not even known to them.
But what about Hem and Haw? Oh, they’re frustrated. They can’t believe someone just dared move their cheese. Haw covers his ears and closes his eyes, blocking the truth out. Hem feels betrayed. Hungry and shocked, they come back home. But before they go, Haw writes something on a wall:
What happens to them next can be called a phase of denial. Hem and Haw keep coming to Section C every day, hoping that someone – no one even knows who – will bring the cheese back. But day after day, nothing changes.
Haw starts to talk Hem into searching for new cheese – but Hem is incredibly stubborn. Why would he go? He’s comfortable here. He’s getting too old. He’s scared to get lost. It’s dangerous out there.
They both stay, and disappointment grows. Passively waiting for a miracle, they get depressed and can’t sleep at night. They think: maybe someone hid the Cheese behind the wall? So they make a hole in the wall – and see no Cheese.
After a while, Haw starts to accept the change, realizing he needs to adapt to it. He writes down a thought on a wall:
Haw imagines himself finding and enjoying the cheese, and this thought gives him inspiration and strength. He knows the Maze means uncertainty – but now he understands this uncertainty is temporary. He’s scared, but writes down another sentence on the wall:
Haw thinks about fear. He makes the conclusion that even though fear can paralyze you, it can also prompt you into action. Finally, he decides to start looking for new Cheese, by himself because Hem chooses to stay.
The Maze is confusing. One moment Haw thinks he’s close, the next one he understands it was an illusion. At least he feels he’s taking control, not just being a passive observer.
Running through the corridors, an interesting thought occurs to him: the Cheese didn’t just disappear overnight. The amount of it was getting smaller, and it didn’t taste as good anymore. They just didn’t pay attention.
So he writes another reminder on the wall:
The dark passages are scary, and it makes Haw want to come back to Section C. If Hem is there, Haw won’t be alone. But he changes his mind – and writes one more thought:
He’s still very scared – actually, scaring himself to death, as his own imagination conjures up images of things that could happen to him in the dangerous Maze. All of a sudden, he realizes these demons are imaginary – and laughs at himself. He starts feeling good:
Haw replaces images of danger with images of New Cheese, seeing himself sitting on a pile of Cheddar, Brie, and many other kinds. He sees it in detail until this picture doesn’t seem unrealistic. He writes the following:
Then he starts thinking about opportunities the changes present. Maybe instead of what they lost, they can get something that’s even better? Why is change always perceived as something bad? This thought inspires Haw, and he runs faster.
And he does find a Cheese station. The only problem is, someone has already been here, and all that is left are just small pieces of Cheese – delicious, but not many. He understands he lost a chance. Taking some Cheese for Hem, he writes:
Haw realizes that his old thinking prevented him from finding new Cheese. He was more concerned with what could go wrong than with what could go right. He didn’t think about New Cheese. He worried about keeping the old Cheese.
But after he sees that going into the Maze again wasn’t as bad – after all, he was able to find enough Cheese to keep him running – he changes his beliefs. He believed that change would harm him. Now he believes it can help him.
And he finds the Cheese! It’s in the Cheese Section N, where Sniff and Scurry are. He tries the new Cheese and takes his shoes off – but doesn’t hide them. Instead, he ties them and hangs them around his neck. Haw reflects on his experience and writes a summary of what he learned:
Hem was not there. But at some point, Haw heard the sound of movement – and said a prayer hoping it would be his friend.
This is the end of the parable. So how can this knowledge actually be applied in real life?
In this small section, through the stories of the classmates, the author explains that.
Gathering again, the classmates share their impressions about the Cheese story, trying to understand what they act like in their lives – like Sniff, Scurry, Haw, or Hem?
Frank tells a story about a friend of his who refused to notice a change occurring in his department – the management was relocating people, and even though everyone tried to tell him to look for new opportunities, he didn’t believe anything was going to change. He was the only one surprised when the department closed.
Michael says that in his company, they had all four types of people, and naturally, they acted differently when the change came. The Sniffs could “sniff” the changes and helped form a vision for the future. Their Scurries were encouraged to take action to make the vision happen. The Hems were like the anchors slowing everything down; some of them were ready to accept the change only after they were told how they could benefit from it. Finally, the Haws, initially hesitant and indecisive, were able to embrace the change and adapt to it.
Jessica makes a comment that the cheese story makes her think of her personal life. She says to accept the change, in this case, does not necessarily mean getting out of a relationship; instead, you can try to change the old behavior – because repeating the same behavior, you’ll get the same results.
The classmates also discuss the importance of New Cheese mentality: Michael says that for people who stayed in his company, it gave a sense of direction, and for those who decided to leave, it gave inspiration to look for new horizons, and many of them did get good new positions.
In the end, they all agree that a parable is quite useful and could save them a lot of trouble had they heard it before.
“Who Moved My Cheese” can make the wrong impression of a children’s book due to the simplicity of language and imagery. Indeed, Spencer Johnson wrote a series of children’s books; but this one is definitely more than that. It teaches that you can learn how to cope with change even if you’re an adult. And even if you’ve got a rigid mindset like Hem, or if you’re hesitant like Haw, it’s never too late to put on your running shoes and yell, “It’s Maze Time!”