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Review #5: Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson

I’ve heard about this book, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, for ages in the self-help industry. Some people have said they hated it and it was useless. Others have loved it. All seemed to know about it.

I finally decided to read it. The book is written as a parable. You’re supposed to draw your own lessons from what the story implies. Fortunately, it’s not as abstract as The Alchemist.  They make it pretty obvious what the lessons are.

I also got a behind-the-scenes commentary since I went through the audio book version. It turns out that the original story was really short, but it was so popular that people started adding more details to it. And then, it became a book.

Here’s my book review. It’s a short read of so it’ll be easy to summarize the important points.

The authors of the story have mentioned that the cheese in the book represents anything a human strives for. It could be money, fame, reputation, happiness, success, achievements, or anything else.

I believe there are many more lessons than the ones that Hem wrote on the wall about change that you can learn from this story. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t get bitter and blame anyone or anything else for where you are in life. Whether it’s fair or not, you have to take your own initiative and improve your circumstances. Sitting there pitying yourself won’t change anything.

Humans tend to get lazy and used to old habits. In Hem’s case, he didn’t really even deserve a lifetime supply of cheese. But over time, he got so used to his luxurious life that he convinced himself he was entitled to all these things, like a spoiled brat. This is a classic human behavior we should avoid. Keep tabs on yourself so it doesn’t happen to you.

Don’t over-complicate things. Don’t use complexity to run from what you don’t want to do. Humans tend to think they’re superior because of how we can use our brains to do very complex things. But this can backfire. Sometimes, the best solutions are simple, but not too simple or complicated.

Hem chose to build these complex drilling machines to drill the walls for cheese rather than face his discomfort and go explore for new cheese. He put in three times the work for none of the payoff. See how you can apply this to your own life. Are you looking up complex diet strategies when you just need to get your butt in the gym?

This reminds me of a story by the billionaire Charlie Munger. He said that during the Cold War and race to the moon, the U.S. spent a fortune (and lots of time) to develop a pen that would work in zero gravity. The Soviets simply used a pencil. Use the most efficient path. But no more efficient than necessary. 

Always stay vigilant and prepare for the inevitable. Sniff and Scurry stayed mentally prepared for the inevitable task of finding more cheese. Hem and Haw got complacent and rooted in their old routines when they were successful already.

It’s the classic story of the Tortoise in the Hare. The Hare thought he was so far ahead of his competition that he slacked off and lost the marathon. Similarly, Warren Buffett says complacency is one of the top killers of large, successful businesses.

Prepare for the unknown negative events of your future. Hem and Haw counted too much on their lifetime supply of cheese to last them and they got lazy. Don’t count on things to be too constant. You never know when life might hand you unfortunate news. There’s politics, war, and illness out there.

While this applies to your personal life, it also clearly applies to business. If you look at the business history of almost any industry, you’ll realize how things can change for the worse, even if you seem to be so successful and happy.

Warren Buffett calls the following the ABC’s of large business death.

Walmart and Barnes & Noble got arrogant in their brick-and-mortar dominance; then came Amazon. People got bureaucratic and avoided change in the DVD rental market, then Netflix came along. People got complacent in the automobile market and got destroyed.

Monitor change. Prepare for change. Change quickly. Adapt. And Enjoy Change. 

These rules about change might seem simple or cheesy to you (no pun intended), but I’ve found that there’s a lot of real evidence in business history supporting these theories.

I read Sam Walton’s book Made in America, which details how he grew Walmart from nothing to a multi-billion dollar company. He constantly embraced changes.

He ran a convenience store and saw discount retail stores come in and drive everyone out of business. Rather than refuse to change and ignore what was obvious, he started his own discount retail stores. He was the first to adopt satellite technology, which put him a decade ahead in communication.  He was the first to fly a mini-airplane on his own in the sky so he could scout the best locations for new stores. Back when he was a franchisee, he got on a bus for 600 miles just to learn an innovative way another store was checking out customers. He even called up two of the highest level chief executives and asked them to swap positions one day because he thought things were getting stale and thought they could do better at each other’s jobs.

You must prepare for change as well. If you have a job, develop your network so you’re prepared for unexpected lay-off’s. The best time to prepare is when you don’t have to.

If you’re operating a business, work like someone’s trying to put you out of business because someone eventually will.

In Business @ The Speed of Thought, Bill Gates said that he accepted that Microsoft would be put out of business at some point. He simply worked to make sure it was in 50 years rather than in the next 2 years.

Failure to change is very common with the elderly. It often results in health issues because they fail to see what has occurred and are stuck in their old ways.

Old businesses often fail to change just like old people. Steve Jobs has mentioned this. He said that old companies like Xerox failed because they got big and let their sales and marketing teams run the company. These people didn’t know anything about innovation or understanding why a new product would work. They ran the organization to the ground because they kept to their old ways and didn’t improve their product with the times.

He knew that he had to kept moving or he would be left behind. Success is the easiest way to get complacent. 

Never have a victim mentality. Hem and Haw do what most humans do, which is slowly become entitled to things they shouldn’t be. When things got tough, they blamed everything but themselves for their problems. They acted like they were entitled to something they weren’t entitled to. 

This is a common, but important lesson in self-help. The best thing that worked for me was the scene in Rocky Balboa where he’s talking to his son. When I first saw that scene, I was in a really tough spot. It really shook me to realize that I wasn’t that bad off and I needed to stop blaming everyone but myself.

I hadn’t cried for the longest time and I was almost moved to tears. Successful people don’t complain.

Don’t get settled on old routines or ways of doing things. It’s rooted in most human’s deep psychology and if you look at most old people, they’re wired in their old ways.

Don’t let fear paralyze you. In the story, Hem discovered that what he imagined would happen was always much worse than what actually occurred. Fear can paralyze you from moving forward. Don’t let it. Hem almost let it but he pushed forward.

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, don’t expect different results.”

Finally, this book properly points out how humans are far from perfect. We think of ourselves as a logical, smart, incredible species because we look at what we’ve accomplished (rocket ships, cars, airplanes, etc.). In reality, we’re irrational, emotional beings that can get easily rooted in inefficient, self-sabotaging, old habits that we grow into out of favoritism.