I was looking at the unemployment statistics the other day and the continuing high figures for older Americans and the long term unemployed caught my eye. That got me thinking about a classic business advice book about being out of work.
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was published in 1998 and has sold millions of copies. It is a business/self-help book that gives instructions on how to face the ever changing work environment. I hate this book.
I know it seems ridiculous to get so emotional about a business book, but I really do. It drives me crazy that this book continues to be a big seller year after year. When I hear anyone mention Who Moved My Cheese? I feel like the little boy from the Hans Christian Anderson Story The Emperor’s New Clothes. In that story the little boy is the one who points out that the Emperor is not wearing fine clothing but is actually naked. Prior to the little boy pointing it out all the people had been afraid to admit that they did not see the clothing either. A con man had convinced the people that if you could not “see” the Emperor’s clothing it was evidence that you were stupid.
Who Moved My Cheese? is an idiotic little story that is pretending to be one of the world’s greatest treasures. Business people are afraid to admit that they don’t think the book is great. They are afraid that if they say don’t like it they will be considered “stupid”.
The story basically says that in today’s world there is no such thing as a permanent job and that you should be prepared if your job disappears. No one “owes” you a job and you need to just move on and get something new without getting angry or worrying about what you “deserve.” Moving on to new things is stressful but also exciting.
There, I just saved you the cost of the book and you don’t have to read it.
OK, if you want to know the plot of the actual book, here it is. There are 2 mice and 2 little people who live in a maze. The little people are the same size as mice. The mice are named “Sniff” and “Scurry” and the little people are named “Hem” and “Haw” . They all work very hard in the maze to find bits of cheese until one day they discover a huge pile of cheese. This is Cheese Station C which Hem and Haw believe has enough cheese to last them the rest of their lives.
This is when Hem and Haw become very lazy. They stop looking for any new places where there might be cheese and they comfortably go to Cheese Station C every day. They are so relaxed that they don’t even notice that the pile of cheese is getting smaller every day. One day they go in and the cheese is all gone. They immediately ask “Who moved my cheese?”
They continue to go back to Cheese Station C every day waiting for things to change but of course they do not. They complain a lot about how unfair it is. The two mice Sniff and Scurry immediately leave and look for cheese elsewhere in the maze. However, Hem and Haw just can’t accept reality. Finally Haw decides to leave Cheese Station C for good in search of new cheese. He says,
“Sometimes things change and they are never the same again. This looks like one of those times, Hem. That’s life! Life moves on. And so should we.” This of course, is the point of the entire book.
Finally Hem himself moves on. He finds new and different cheeses in other parts of the maze. He never finds a pile as big as Cheese Station C and he never is a comfortable as he once was, but he also has more adventure and more variety in his life than he once had.
It is not a terrible book and it does make a point about being able to move on in life. However, I have a number of reasons for disliking the book so much. The first is that the author treats his readers like they are idiots. The entire book is only 93 pages long. However, the story itself is only 36 pages. The rest of the book are pictures of cheese, a foreword and a discussion after the story. The author seems to be using the old advertising technique called, “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.”
The other complaint I have is the simplistic way it depicts the disappearance of a person’s job. Everything is Hem and Haw’s own fault. Hem and Haw created nothing. They did not help make the cheese and they ate all the cheese at Cheese Station C . Therefore, they are depicted as lazy and stupid.
The reality of the workforce in American life is vastly different. People do work very hard and make companies successful. They did not “find” the cheese. They made the cheese themselves. Sometimes through no fault of their own, workers are laid off. There is still a big pile of cheese there but the worker is told that he or she is no longer allowed to partake.
There are companies which lay off thousands of middle management and lower level people while the CEO of that same company is paid tens of millions of dollars. The book does not discuss the many forms of discrimination (age, sex, race) which still exist today. Hem and Haw do not get replaced by two younger workers.
The realities of competing in an ever more competitive work environment are much more complex and difficult to deal with than this simplistic book portrays. If you are 61 and no one will even look at your resume because they want someone “dynamic” ( code word for younger) you need some good specific advice as to how to provide for you family. Just being told, “the quicker you let go of the old cheese the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese” really does not help much.