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Friday, September 21, 2012

The gift of deciding what matters to us


I just finished reading a book that I had picked up at a recent conference. It is titled "I moved your cheese" and is written as a critical parody on the 1998 bestseller: "Who moved my cheese." Over the years, I have frequently mentioned that old bestseller in my presentations, lectures, and writings, because the message it provides is -in itself- strong enough: two mice and two little people who live in a maze and daily meet each other in cheese station C, where they obtain their cheese. On a bad day, however, the cheese has disappeared, and everybody is in disarray. Yet, the two mice don’t waste too much time: they quickly put on their running shoes, and set off into the maze in order to find new cheese.

The two little people do what most people do: for a few weeks they grumble about the injustice done to them, but in the end one of them suggests that they follow the example of the mice and also start looking for a new cheese source. The other doesn’t want to hear about this, because he feels that his rights have been violated, so he prefers to sit and wait until the cheese supply in station C is restored.

The little person that takes off to look for new cheese learns many lessons on his way to the uncertain future, but eventually discovers a new, bigger cheese station, where, lo and behold, he gets reunited with the two mice, who have settled in, but nevertheless keep their running shoes hanging around their necks in case of a new crisis.

Moral of the story: changes are continuous and unpredictable, and flexibility is the best way to respond to it.

In "I Moved Your Cheese" the author firmly criticizes the above story. While he agrees that life is full of surprises and that we must be flexible, he also feels that we shouldn’t take everything as a given, but should think critically about our situation and the changes we face. He comments that the first book fails to address the issue of who has actually moved the cheese.  Thus, he feels that the figures in that story promote a victimized mentality: someone took the cheese out of our mouth, and now we just look for other cheese -- no questions asked. The writer underscores that if we think this way, we will always remain the victims of "others".

In “I moved your cheese” the author introduces three mice, Max, Zed and Big, each of whom is exceptional in his own way. Max is incurably inquisitive and wants to know the "how" and "why" of everything. This is how he ultimately discovers that there is a world outside the maze, where people decide where the cheese gets moved to, so they can study the reactions of the mice. Once aware of this, Max begins to manipulate the logbooks of the people when they are asleep, and realizes that he now has the power to determine where the cheese will be placed on a daily basis.

Zed lives in the maze like all the other mice, but doesn’t care much about cheese. He eats just enough to stay afloat, and doesn’t allow his happiness to depend on abundance or scarcity of cheese. The other mice don’t understand him, because he is so stoic and detached in a way. When Max tells Zed about the world outside the maze and all the manipulations that go on with the cheese, Zed wisely responds: "the problem is not that the mouse in the maze, but that the maze in the mouse is: we all determine for ourselves what our shortcomings are".

Big, finally, becomes disturbed by the growing masses of mice around him and actively starts looking for a way out. Strong and athletic as he is, he begins to test the walls of the maze. One day he gathers all his physical and mental strength and runs straight through the thinnest wall, leaving a big hole in the maze for whoever wants to follow him, but determined for himself to never return to that restrictive maze.

Of course it depends on each of us to decide who we want to identify with: the mice of the second book, the mice and little people of the first book, or our own unique self, flexible and quick, but at the same time creative and critically thinking about what, in this life, is most important for us.

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