A Cheesy Tale?

Our view of life and future possibilities can be unhelpfully constrained by our past experience. This can mean we chase our tails doing what we have always done, being active rather than productive. This is one of the key learning points in the book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Dr Spencer Johnson which I have just finished reading.

The book is a parable that demonstrates in practical terms how to handle change better and avoid pitfalls, by practising a few key principles:

  • Anticipating and preparing for change
  • Overcoming fears
  • Envisioning success
  • Enjoying change

It addresses the inevitability of change, the ways in which we typically deal with it and how, by revising our attitude towards change, we can reduce stress and increase success. Like all parables it is told in the form of a story that we can relate clearly to our lives.

The story takes place in a maze, where four characters search for and consume cheese. Cheese represents happiness or satisfaction in its various forms such as security, prestige or wealth. Two of the characters, Sniff and Scurry, are mice who take an industrious, uncomplicated trial-and-error approach to finding cheese. They never overthink things, instead trying out various routes until one day they find a large store of cheese.

The other two characters, Hem and Haw, are “little people” who apply more sophisticated thinking and analytical skills to the daily search. They too find the same large stockpile of cheese.

However the two groups have very different attitudes toward their situation. The humans Hem and Haw take the cheese for granted, assuming it will always be there. By contrast, the mice stay alert to their surroundings. They notice that the quality and supply of the cheese are slowly dwindling.

One day the cheese is gone. The mice accept this and head off to find more. Hem and Haw are shocked to lose the cheese. They had felt entitled to it, and they curse the world for its unfairness. They sit around, waiting for the cheese to reappear, and they become increasingly frustrated when it does not. Hem yells, “Who moved my cheese?” and decides to sit tight and wait for the cheese to come back. Haw heads off alone into the maze and overcomes his psychological barriers to adapting to change. He realises that his fear of going back out to find new cheese was overblown — he had let the fear build up in his mind and in reality it was not that bad. He encounters setbacks in the maze, but he realises he is still happier taking control rather than being a victim of his situation. He continues imagining enjoying new cheese, which motivates him to push further.

As I have been reading the book I have been reflecting on the children of 2020 and their families. So much has changed this year and we could forgive the children for feeling victimised by circumstance, demanding a return to former times and refusing to move until it comes. It is easy to draw parallels from the story to unsettling changes in our own current lives. The characters’ flaws and successes reflect our own tendencies when confronting change: Like Haw, we may resist, complain and deny change because we have become complacent or afraid. Alternatively we can be like Sniff and Scurry, staying on our toes, preparing for future change, not overanalysing things, and being ready to adapt without fear.

I have been really impressed with the children at school. This is a time of year when corridors are usually flooded with the sounds of Christmas performance music and drama. There is still some but with no live performances to families permitted, the amount of festive ambience is certainly less. Yet the children remain positive and are embracing the new opportunities that are presented to them. Current times are proving to be a real test of our resilience but, just as Haw in the story recognised, it is important to take control and avoid the feeling of being a victim.

Tuesday sees the start of December. You will discover that we have been busy as a school, searching for our new cheese in the maze. I hope you enjoy the opportunities as much as we have. The challenges in our lives are bringing us together, stronger. We will continue to model being flexible, agile and responsive to the children. It is key to survival. Have your running shoes at the ready!

Robert Upton