In the Long Run We're All Dead Mice (Or, Trivial Trash for the Unenlightened and Unaware)

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When we were children, we were supposed to be concerned with who cut the cheese. Now, as responsible and intelligent and informed adults with big, fancy degrees who make important decisions concerning business, we are supposed to mull over the thought of someone moving our cheese.

"Moving your cheese" is, of course, the corporate equivalent of making change. Sort of like someone moving your post-it pad from the right side of your desk to the left, over next to the phone. Oh the trauma.

Dr. Spencer Johnson, the self-proclaimed "world’s #1 expert on change," made it all happen with his huge-selling Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Like no other book before it, this third-rate trash helped to set the standard for the dumbing down of the populace in the corporate workplace. We all owe much gratitude to Dr. Johnson, indeed.

Now, if by chance you are not used to reading such a challenging book — complete with Hercules-size type, margins the width of an Arctic crevice, and, by golly, 6 and 7-letter words — then you may find yourself more comfortable with Dr. Johnson’s movie called Who Moved My Cheese? The movie version of Cheese embodies four main characters that are knock-offs of television’s Teletubbies. Only instead of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po, we have troupers of a much higher caliber: Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw. Teletubbies, by the way, is geared toward two-year-olds. Who Moved My Cheese, not holding anything back in its quest for intellectual prowess, reaches for the apex and manages to boost the reader up to the level of perhaps eleven years old. An accomplishment of epic proportions.

The precept of the Cheese story is that we all loathe change, are unquestionably terrified by it, and like little children who find out they have arranged seating in the 1st grade, we delude ourselves and hope it will go away. In fact, we spend all our time wishing it away. We even have a razor blade to our wrist just thinking about the fact that we now have to include a bolded subject line for inter-office memos.

Jon Carroll recently published a brilliant takedown of Cheese in the San Franciso Chronicle, wherein he noted that

“Who Moved My Cheese?” is much used in corporate settings. Employees are ordered to read the book, to write reports about the book, to break into groups and discuss the book. The principles of the book are referred to in meetings. It is a huge hit among managers, and a huge pain for employees.

The heart of “Who Moved My Cheese” is a lengthy fable. It concerns four characters, two mice named “Sniff” and “Scurry” and two “littlepeople” named “Hem” and “Haw.” These “littlepeople” are just scaled-down humans.

All four of these characters operate in the same maze. They seek cheese. Then someone, some unseen hand, moves the cheese. The mice sniff and scurry, you see, and find where the cheese has gotten to. The littlepeople hem and haw, and therefore find themselves way behind in the search for the cheese. Slowly, they learn how to find the cheese.

The author seems to think that “cheese” is a metaphor for “success in business,” but the employees forced to read the book know the truth: “Cheese” is a metaphor for “continued employment.” Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that a flurry of cheese sessions often precedes layoffs.

So iconic has the book become, employees are judged on how well they handle the cheese seminars.

…Employees are encouraged to emulate the mice and/or learn from the travails of the littlepeople. These are interesting choices of role models — small and powerless things who forever run around a maze because they need cheese.

“Whining” and “complaining” are not encouraged. They are taken as signs of a lack of spiritual growth. The good mice sniff out the new location of the cheese and scurry toward it; the bad littlepeople ask pointless questions and fail to seek the cheese aggressively.

Neither mice nor littlepeople are encouraged to ask why they are in a maze at all, or to question the task, or to consider that maybe running after cheese is a lame substitute for having a life, in a world with garlic fries and roast duck and peach pies.

AND THE EMPLOYEES get the message. No matter how wrapped up in New Age jargon it is, the message is: Ask only small questions. Accept whatever you are told. If it’s cheese day at the office, say “thank you” and give a nice cringing presentation about moving with the times.

Carroll’s bull’s-eye review closes with a bang:

Reading “Who Moved My Cheese?” I was reminded of another book about “littlepeople” who were constantly required to survive in a mazelike environment characterized by cruel and arbitrary change, another place where the search for cheese was constant. That book is “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Cheese is a favorite corporate mistress for a host of reasons. First of all, individuality is not welcome in the workplace. In fact, it is condemned. Critical thinking is a danger to the collective, good-little-team-player environment. Secondly, the Human Resources (HR) people that push this book are not typically of the intellectually rigorous variety, and their four years of self-help philosophizing and superficial cheerleading — masquerading as a college degree — puts them on par with little mice and Teletubbies. Hence the pushdown of outright mental incapacity to other people who are responsible and intelligent and informed adults with big, fancy degrees who make important decisions concerning business, but are forced to read a book about a bunch of little mice that chase little pieces of cheese around a maze because they are too helpless to do anything else worthwhile. The HR folk are better off sticking to sexual harassment seminars and arranging charity walk-a-thons, as opposed to engaging discerning businesspeople in endeavors that are well over their head.

Lastly, it is sad to say that a whole lot of corporate drones do eat this book up — pun intended — and literally gush over it, and can’t wait to turn in their little book reports about how Cheese made them whole again, and changed their lives immensely. If you are one of those disobliging employees who doesn’t think that, you had better not say it, because you will be tossed out of the maze and hogtied to the kitchen table leg until the cat comes and gets you for dinner.

The story, as a whole, is a pile of collectivist, feel-good, moronic debris. Its purpose is to dumb down every corporate worker bee to the lowest common denominator. Reading the book voluntarily is insulting to the core. Being told to read it is to be engaged in pure politics for the sake of fulfilling some controlling manager’s fantasies in the workplace. Cheese essentially tells you that you cannot stand out from others, that you must accept your bits of cheese, and smile, for it pays your mortgage and new car lease every month.

As Laura Lemay puts it, Who Moved My Cheese is "a 94 page, $19.95 version of the bumper sticker that says “Sh** Happens.” And so it is. But we already knew that.

Karen De Coster, CPA, [send her mail] is a part-time freelance writer; graduate student in Economics and Finance; and a full-time, accounting and finance professional. She is fond of motorcycles, guns, Delirium Tremens, lake perch, Stillwater (Minnesota), deadlifting, old barns, road trips through the Ohio Valley, magazine racks, general stores, cigars, iTunes, martini bars, and articles defending Martha Stewart. She enjoys pissing off the extroverts by listening to her iPod in public. Check out her website, along with her blog.

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