Of change and cheese

“The only constant is change.” — Heraclitus, c. 535 – 475 BC

“Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” — Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, c. 560 – 480 BC

Another project manager at my company recently recommended that I read Who Moved My Cheese? I seemed to be hearing about this best-seller everywhere, so I thought I’d better check it out. This parable about two mice and two “littlepeople” who live in a maze where they look for cheese is touted as being life-changing and “a-mazing.” The book can be read almost cover-to-cover in a train ride from San Francisco to San Jose (I can attest to that), and its message is simple: change is inevitable, and you’re better off if you not only deal with it but even anticipate it when possible.

Some consider this book a ruthless ploy by management to manipulate workers into unquestioningly accepting any change imposed on them. Although it could be used that way, I think its message is more profound—the book is not just about the corporate world but about life in general. (I won’t get into the way the message is conveyed, which some readers find insulting, patronizing, or worse.) However, I didn’t find this idea life-changing. For starters, I’d heard it before. The Buddha expressed it over two thousand years ago when he noted that impermanence is one of the basic facts of existence and we can be more content if we come to terms with that. His teachings, however, can’t be read in one short train ride.

Another reason the book might not have made as big an impression on me as on some is that I’ve worked in high tech for 11 years. If I hadn’t learned to deal with change by now, I probably wouldn’t still be here. That’s not to say I always welcome change or find it easy; I admit that it’s often difficult and unsettling. Just open any beginning psychology textbook, and you’ll see that it lists the 10 most stressful events in a person’s life as those involving change, even a positive one such as marriage. We mammals don’t take kindly to change—not even mice.

On the other hand, change happens whether we like it or not. And in my job, though change can be stressful it also keeps the work engaging and provides new opportunities. I started in high tech as an editor, and some years ago my job changed from editing manager to project manager. I’ve thrived on this change, because my work is now more interesting and varied. When I got used to the job and worried that the next year would be boring, what do you know—our entire help system changed, requiring all sorts of new processes and solutions to new issues, and keeping the job anything but boring.

Still, I remain a mammal and can be resistant to change. So I suppose any reminder that it’s a fact of life is a good thing. Whether any given person will find Who Moved My Cheese? life-changing may depend on their perspective and life experiences, but its basic message about change is true and always will be; that, as we know, is the one thing that never changes.

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1 thought on “Of change and cheese

  1. What I find amusing about the subject is how much effort we put into trying to manage change. In a sense, that is what Project Managers do: they try to rationalize proposed change so that the results meet the cost, time, and quality requirements. But as a number of military leaders have pointed out, rationality is the first casualty of battle. That is, planning, while necessary, must also be subject to change itself while we’re in the process of trying to do almost anything in the real world.
    We even have the relatively new discipline called Change Management, a practice dedicated to managing (corporate) change.
    Still, I guess our species has to try to rationalize ever changing projects and environments. It’s what we believe we need to do, even if the evidence is that much about change defies our best efforts at managing it. 😉

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