Chasing the cheese with Spencer Johnson
- Nelson T. Dy () - May 4, 2008 - 12:00am


Nelson T. Dy is an author and a speaker on workplace and relation-ship issues. He has a bache-lor’s degree in chemical engineering from De La Salle University and an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management. His day job is in industrial marketing. He has written three books: Finding Comfort, How to Mend a Broken Heart and Your First Job: A Practical Guide to Success.

I  hate it when things don’t go my way. Yet a slim book changed all that. The book is Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson.   

Johnson’s story is deceptively simple. Imagine a giant maze where four characters live. Two are mice named Sniff and Scurry. The other two are “Littlepeople” — as big as the mice but a lot smarter — named Hem and Haw. Every day, these four go to a place in the maze called Cheese Station C and enjoy a fresh supply of cheese. “Cheese” is Johnson’s metaphor for whatever makes us happy, be it a job, marriage or even golf.

One day, they find that there is no more cheese at the station. The two mice immediately set off to find new cheese. As their names imply, Sniff would detect the scent of fresh cheese somewhere else in the maze while Scurry would zoom off to find it. As Johnson wrote, “The situation at Cheese Station C has changed. So, Sniff and Scurry decided to change.”

But the Littlepeople were not as quick to adapt. Hem fiercely insists that he is entitled to the cheese and considers it grossly unfair that the supply has run out. Haw wants to venture into the maze to hunt for new cheese but is afraid of failing.

Truth to tell, I wish I was more like Sniff and Scurry, but I find myself more like Hem and Haw. My “cheese,” that which makes me happy, is to earn a lot of money. One of the sharpest memories in my childhood is when my mother and I were evicted from our apartment because the owner wanted to use it for her pregnant daughter. I remember how, after we had carted off all our furniture, my mom sobbed in a corner of the bare living room. At age 12, I vowed to be so rich that I would be able to afford to buy her a nice house of her own.

Twenty years later, I graduated from a prestigious college. My maze was the corporate world; my immediate cheese was that plum job with a fantabulous salary. I jumped from job to job (read: Cheese Stations), each one of increasing rank and paycheck. In my fourth job, I was able to buy a piece of land in San Pedro, Laguna. My next move was to mortgage the land and build a single-detached house on it. 

Then my cheese was gone! That was the time of the Asian currency crisis and I was retrenched. Like Hem and Haw, I was angry and depressed. How could they do this to me? How could I now build that house?

In due time, I found new jobs. But the cheese kept eluding me. I was being paid at roughly the same rate as I had been 10 years before. Worse, I got jealous when I would hear of people half my age earning double my salary. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to build that house. I felt I had let my mother down. I felt I had let myself down, too.

Now I have just joined a company where I hope to retire in. But I am pelted with the same insecurities: What if I let my boss or friends down? How will I deal with the politics in the head office or factory?

This brings me back to Who Moved My Cheese?

Continuing with Johnson’s tale, Hem and Haw languish for several days without their beloved cheese. Then Haw conjures up an image of him enjoying new cheese, which neutralizes his fears. He sets off into the maze to find new cheese. But Hem is not as daring. He insists on staying behind and expects the old cheese to reappear in Cheese Station C.

As Haw journeys down the maze, he feels the exhilaration of being in control rather than letting events run his life. On the wall of the maze, he scribbles truisms like: “If you do not change, you can become extinct.” “The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.” “Moving in a new direction helps you find new cheese.” “Imagining yourself enjoying your new cheese leads you to it.”

It is the last principle that liberated me from my phobias. If I were to get my cheese, I would have to choose to relish fresh challenges rather than dread them. On the practical side, I have discovered that the best antidote to fear of failure is ceaseless preparation. For this, I am investing in instructional books and tapes.

Will I finally have my cheese? I have since gotten married; my wife and I are blessed to have fully paid the townhouse where we now reside. Meantime, my piece of land continues to sit forlornly on a small hill in San Pedro. But my mother indicated that, had I built the house as planned, she would have been bored to tears living alone anyway. Today, she is happily living with her extended family in Paco.

Johnson’s story ends with Haw finding Sniff and Scurry in Cheese Station N. The mice had been gorging on new cheese and Haw settles in to join the feast. His mind wistfully goes back to Hem. Did Hem finally muster the courage to change, as they did? Or did Hem tragically waste away? Here, Johnson leaves the tale hanging.

I hope my own tale will not suffer an ambiguous end. But I appreciate the major lesson of this charming tale: “Enjoy the change. Savor the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese.”

In my new job, every day is a vista of fresh discoveries. I am pleased to have a good boss and friendly co-workers. When I get to meet my customers, I aim to render world-class service. Along this path, I hope, are the promotion and paycheck I have aspired to all my life.

But who knows? My cheese may just change to better stuff than pesos and prestige. But that is another story…

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