Spencer Johnson is an M.D. who has become better known for fixing ailing corporations than healing the sick, first with his 1982 business classic The One Minute Manager (coauthored with psychiatrist Kenneth Blanchard) and then, unforgettably, with Who Moved My Cheese?, a word-of-mouth sensation that eventually remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years and has been translated into 11 languages.
Word had slowly built up about Cheese, based on the strength of recommendations from heavy-hitter executives at Procter & Gamble, GE, Hewlett-Packard and others. Businesses, hit by the downshifting economy, began ordering copies by the thousands; by 2000, it was a national bestseller. The book sets up a story about four characters who live in a maze: Hem and Haw, who are little people; and Sniff and Scurry, who are mice.
Johnson, who based the story on the fact that mice rarely go back to the same place to look for cheese and felt that humans might benefit from the example, created the story for himself as a way of helping himself get through a divorce. Urged by former writing partner Blanchard to set the story down in book form, Johnson finally did – and nothing happened, at first. But over two years, the book picked up momentum, not only among companies who were trying to deal with everything from sales downturns to massive layoffs, but among individuals who found the book helped them gain a new perspective on personal situations as well.
Johnson’s forte is to create allegorical stories that present simple, digestible solutions (or paths to solutions) for seemingly huge challenges. The approach is far from immune to criticism from those who complain that Who Moved My Cheese? is simplistic and silly; Johnson doesn’t argue with either barb (though he might prefer "simple" over "simplistic"). His message is that being simpler and sillier makes us better adapters and decision-makers, and all of his books boil down to opening oneself to possibility and better communication. The ideas aren’t revolutionary: As Johnson said in an ABC News chat, “The challenge always for me and for others is to live the story and not just read about it.”
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Barnes & Noble.com interviewed Johnson about why so many people are embracing his cheesy tale.
The trends and buzzwords in business books are changing more rapidly than ever. Yet your simple tale, Who Moved My Cheese?, has had remarkable sales over a long period of time. How do you explain its incredible longevity as a bestseller?
It's amazing. The idea is really practical and valuable to people...plus a lot of it is timing. I know I invented this little story so I could heal myself during a time when I wasn't dealing with change very well. That was in 1978. I didn't write the book until 1998. In fact, I wouldn't ever have written the book if Ken Blanchard hadn't called me about two years ago. He said, "When are you ever going to write Who Moved My Cheese?" I told him, "I'm not sure I'm ever going to write it." I didn't want to get back into the world of number of copies sold, where you are on the bestseller list, size of the advance. When you're younger, all of that stuff seems very exciting, but it doesn't really give you a sense of meaning or purpose.
Then Ken said, "Do you have any idea how many people this could serve?" He reminded me how many stories we've heard from people over the last 20 years who, after hearing a simple five- or ten-minute oral version of the tale, would say, "That little story helped save my marriage," or "It changed my career," or whatever. So there's something in the simplicity and the nonthreatening nature of the story that people can basically interpret for themselves and get what they want to get out of it. And that seems to be a lot more powerful than reading a book that tells you what the answers are and what you ought to be doing.
Who Moved My Cheese? is a simple parable, and while reading it, you discover some things you've probably been thinking about beforehand. It brings them up in such clear terms. What Ken Blanchard said tapped my interest in using simple, practical truths to reduce stress.
Where did that interest originate?
Good question. I was always interested, since I was a little boy in being a doctor. I grew up in Hollywood, California. A lot of my parents' friends were in the motion picture industry, but I saw their doctor friends as more solid. I admired them; there was a peacefulness in them, a sense of purpose that I liked. So I became very interested in being a surgeon. I went to the Royal College of Surgeons and Harvard Medical School and all the right places to get the most high-powered training. I was educated to sort of distrust the simple as being so simple that it didn't solve problems. It was during those years of looking at all of the complexities of medicine that I began to make a distinction between simplistic, which was not enough, and simple, which was everything it needed to be, but no more. So I really became fascinated with experimenting to see how the simple would work.
I came across a great comment recently from Jack Welch, whom many people consider one of the most effective CEOs in the country. He said that insecure managers create complexity. You can't believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that they will seem simple-minded. The most clear, tough-minded people are always the most simple. Now, Welch is a guy who lives in a pretty complex, large corporation. He too has learned the power of embracing what is simple. I think you have to be much more secure and much less angry to trust the simple. You've got to be in a pretty good place to trust those simple, obvious answers and, most important, to use them.
As I was rereading your book, I kept thinking of all of the books and articles that have been dedicated to Silicon Valley -- its overwhelming pace, it's cannibalistic drive. Is Who Moved My Cheese? a book that sells among the Valley crowd?
Apparently it's selling like crazy among them. We're finding many companies from Dell to Apple to IBM are ordering Who Moved My Cheese? in multiple copies. The way that the book is so effective is...when people watch these little characters during the course of the story they stop and say, "Oh, my god, I think I recognize one of these characters." I think high-tech professionals are almost experts at letting go of old cheese and going after the new, because their products become obsolete so quickly. They're not married to the paradigms that we were raised with. They're probably at the cutting edge of letting go of old products, old beliefs, old ways of doing stuff...because if they don't, they're literally out of business.
Why the metaphor of two mice and two "littlepeople" in a maze? Did it just come to you in a flash?
I was taking myself very seriously when I was going through life changes. And I realized that I needed to laugh at myself, particularly at my mistakes. I had heard a story some years before about the difference between mice and people -- mice don't keep going to the same place when they find there's no cheese. People keep going back to the same spot and spend a lot of time complaining that the cheese isn't there. So I created a story with characters in it that would get me to laugh.
What was the catalyst in your life that brought this on?
The big "D" -- divorce. It was not much fun. And certainly I wasn't going to experience it. That was for the other person to go through, not me. It was a really humbling, eye-opening experience.
Your book has been a big seller among corporations. Do you think Who Moved My Cheese? translates well for entrepreneurs and independent contractors?
It seems pretty universal. It's very much for freelance entrepreneurs and noncorporate folks as well. The Red Cross is using it. Ohio State University's athletic department uses it for incoming freshman athletes to help them with the change of going from being big cheeses in high school to a huge university with 20,000 to 40,000 students. Ohio State liked it so much they took it to the NCAA. The NCAA sent out a notice to 450 colleges and universities, suggesting that it would be very useful, not only for faculty but also for students. It's really spread out to so many areas beyond what I conceived when I wrote it.
Am I off base when I say that the biggest criticism you probably get for this book is that it's, pardon the pun, cheesy?
I think that's true. First of all, you have to acknowledge that it is cheesy. Lighten up and say, "Yeah, that's true." You don't resist it, you don't defend it. Some people say, "This is the dumbest book I've ever read. I knew everything in it." I already know something about those people, even though they're right. I also know the chances are that nine out of ten of them are not living the book's message. Yes, we know you know it; now what are you doing? You get that reaction particularly when someone gives them the book and says "Here, you need this." One person said, "Getting a copy of this book is like getting a bottle of Scope from your boss." I really like to listen to those readers' comments.
I have rewritten this book eight times since it was published. I remember in BusinessWeek the reviewer slammed it, saying "Does the author really think that rodents are smarter than people?" He made a very good point, I thought. In the seventh edition we did a front piece that said, The four characters in the story represent the four parts of ourselves, from the simple to the complex. Sometimes we can sniff out what's going on around us, and sometimes we can scurry into action. Other times, we're like the character "Hem" and we resist, and we like what's comfortable and we're afraid of changing. There are times when we can be like the character "Haw," and we can laugh at ourselves, and move on, and adapt. You just have to accept that a certain percentage of people don't need [this book], don't care for it, or aren't ready for it, and you have to respect that. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people seem to enjoy it.
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