Monday, June 15, 2015

Cheese in the Labyrinth - an Exegisis

“Who Moved My Cheese?”  by Dr. Spencer Johnson is said to be the most popular business book in the world. As an employee motivational tool it’s ubiquitous, but it can be oddly counterproductive as a morale-booster. Indeed, so many managers hand out “Who Moved My Cheese?” before layoffs or re-organizations that just the sight of it telegraphs to workers that they should start checking the job boards.

So when our newly hired manager announced at a staff meeting that he wanted us all to read “Who Moved My Cheese?”, several people just rolled their eyes at one another, behind his back.

I read it back in 2002 – that was three or four departmental re-organizations ago.  And of course, I love my cheese.  The book is a simple parable, designed to help people adapt to change. But now I’ve read it with a fresh eye, I’m seeing something I missed the first time.

“Who Moved My Cheese?” is a tale of a dystopian, cruel and arbitrary world, ruled by an anonymous and invisible monster, where captive creatures carry out desperate lives bereft of meaning, to no purpose.

Four characters – two mice, and two “littlepeople” - are trapped in a maze and forced to seek out their food, or Cheese. They spend frantic times racing through the maze searching, and getting lost in frightening blind corners, empty-bellied.

When they finally find a huge store of food, they mark its location, and adapt their lives around it.

Then, one day, their Cheese vanishes.

Like characters in a movie, each of the four learns to cope with the disastrous loss of Cheese.

The mice Sniff and Scurry collaborate, and go off to find New Cheese.

Littleperson Hem has a mental breakdown, and refuses to leave the empty Cheese Station.

His counterpart Haw, after much indecision, ventures out into the maze to seek New Cheese. He must overcome fear, self-doubt, and experiences a few set-backs, but eventually he finds not only New Cheese, but is reunited with Sniff and Scurry.

Haw considers and then discards the notion of rescuing Hem. Hem is left to survive or die. His fate is unknown.

Haw’s story is like the classic hero’s journey, a concept introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Joining Hem in denial of the problem, he first tries to ignore the call to action, but eventually he is drawn forth into the strange and frightening world of the maze, as Campbell says, “beyond the veil of the known into the unknown,” on a quest for the ultimate goal.

There, he travels what Campbell calls the “road of trials.” The epiphany he experiences becomes a series of simple, obvious truths. Change Happens. Anticipate Change. Adapt to Change. Enjoy Change. It's as simple and obvious as the message another hero, Dorothy Gale of Kansas, brought back from her journey to the unknown Oz, There's No Place Like Home.

Haw writes these truths as messages on the wall, markers to guide others – an Ariadne’s thread, like that used by Theseus to evade the Minotaur. The message is both a means of rescue for others, and the Gift itself, brought back to humankind.

The world of “Who Moved My Cheese?”, which is meant to mirror the corporate environment, is a strangely closed one, containing only these four characters. They are powerless and unaware, with no one to rely on but themselves. They don’t know what institution or person has trapped them here. They don’t question the reason they’ve been imprisoned instead of being free. They have no wider world-view, their lives revolve only around Cheese.

The smart ones, Sniff and Scurry, form a mutually beneficial alliance. To succeed, however, they abandon Hem and Haw to a fate of starvation and possible death. (When Hem rejoins them at the new Cheese Station, the reader may wonder how the balance of power between Hem and his murine rivals has been tipped. But that’s another parable!)

We are asked to accept the fact that Cheese just gets moved arbitrarily without explanation. Though overconsumption is cited as one reason, the vanished Cheese, moldy as it was, was simply taken. Why? Was it justified? What greater good came from the moving of the Cheese? Or was its removal a criminal act?

The book’s title is “Who Moved My Cheese?”, but that question goes unanswered. We never learn the identity of the person or thing with power over the Cheese. Yet it is a compelling question. Who is this omnipotent agent?

In myth, the Minotaur is monstrous, an unnatural creature neither man nor beast. Not unlike a multinational corporation, the Minotaur must devour people to sustain itself. In “Who Moved My Cheese?” the maze’s Minotaur seems to move the Cheese around for his own cruel amusement. The book assumes the reader will accept this tyrannical state of affairs without protest.

And while we’re at it, can we address for a moment how the author marginalizes the achievement of Sniff and Scurry? These are the true heroes of the book. While the littlepeople fall apart, these brave, proactive mice exhibit teamwork and diligence. They’ve already learned to anticipate change, the lesson that was so hard-won by Haw. Why isn’t their accomplishment celebrated? The author even dismisses them with casual, institutionalized speciesism as “simple rodents” with “good instincts.”

While it’s true that Haw learns a valuable lesson, it seems sadly pointless. What’s the purpose in teaching these poor incarcerated creatures to anticipate and react to change, when their lives are, essentially bereft of meaning? What will they do with their new wisdom, if they’re doomed to be trapped in a maze?

Haw endures a heroic journey of trials, but unlike Campbell’s heroes, his journey is entirely solipsistic. There are no dragons in this story, no wise protectors or temptresses. His struggles with fear and doubt are internal. Even his final epiphany comes from within. In a fulfillment of the libertarian ideal championed by the book’s corporate promoters, the true moral of “Who Moved My Cheese?” seems to be that every littleperson has to look out for himself.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Exactly! And thank you! I loathed that book.

Daniel Neuman said...

And ditto; read it and found it silly. But I very much liked your thoughts about it.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Love this! (Not the book, of course, but your writing)

Anonymous said...

I love your ability to bring Joseph Campbell into that ridiculous book. You're right about the rodents too - they knew they had the best abilities and could only save each other with their talent. The author, overwhelmed and flummoxed by their obvious superiority, could not even attempt to explain them. Recognize the rodent! naomi

M. Bouffant said...

Ugh. I shelved a zillion-ish copies of that little gem, but was never tempted to open it. Thanks for the shorter.

You certainly picked the right time to get out of the mouse race.