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I Moved Your Cheese

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If you were a mouse trapped in a maze and someone kept moving the cheese, what would you do?

Over a decade ago the bestselling business fable Who Moved My Cheese? offered its answer to this question: accept that change is inevitable and beyond your control, don’t waste your time wondering why things are the way they are, keep your head down and start looking for the cheese.

But success in the areas of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, and business growth—as well as personal growth—depends on the ability to push the boundaries, reshape the environment, and play by a different set of rules: our own. With that in mind, Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra offers a radically different answer to this question.

Malhotra tells an inspiring story about three unique and adventurous mice—Max, Big, and Zed—who refuse to accept their reality as given. As we watch their lives unfold and intersect, we discover that instead of just blindly chasing after the cheese, each of us has the ability to escape the maze or even reconfigure it to our liking.

In the face of established practices, traditional ideas, scarce resources, and the powerful demands or expectations of others, we often underestimate our ability to control our own destiny and overcome the constraints we face—or think we face. I Moved Your Cheese reminds us that we can create the new circumstances and realities we want, but first we must discard the often deeply ingrained notion that we are nothing more than mice in someone else’s maze. As Zed explains, “You see, Max, the problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse.”

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The Good Book


They called it a revolution. The lesson—the insight—had spread throughout the maze. Scarcely a mouse remained who had not heard what was contained in the good book.

The insight was profound. More importantly, it did not rely too much on one’s ability to reason. And any mouse will tell you that this attribute is the hallmark of all great truths. So it was accepted as perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most important, truth. And it was all so simple.

The book made it clear: Change happens. You can sit there and complain about it, or you can change with the times. Do not fear change. Accept change. What happens in the maze is beyond your control. What you can control is your reaction.

Now, just because every mouse had come to understand this insight does not mean that every one of them was able to adopt it in practice. Some succeeded fully. They learned that change is inevitable and uncontrollable. They accepted that they were helpless to control the workings of the maze—fate, they called it—and they pledged to adapt.




When Max was younger, he once asked his parents why there was a maze. His parents didn’t understand the question. When he persisted, they told him that some questions have no answers and that the maze simply is. When he asked why the maze was designed the way it was, and why it had so many useless paths, they told him not to waste time wondering why. They told him to focus, instead, on learning how to navigate the maze. You don’t get to the cheese by wondering why, they said; you get to it by running around the maze as fast as you can. The maze, they explained, was a given. You work with what you’re given. It is pretty arrogant for a young mouse to think that he could do otherwise, they cautioned.

Max was not blessed with the virtue of blind obedience. Instead, he continued to annoy his parents, his friends, his teachers, and anyone else who made the mistake of discussing such matters with him. The more he questioned, the more he discovered how little the other mice understood. They knew a whole lot, but they understood very little.




Zed was a mouse who did not care much for cheese. He ate cheese because it helped sustain his body. And he cared to sustain his body mostly because it was needed to sustain his mind.

Zed had a reputation for being wise, although few mice had ever spoken with him in great depth. He was a popular mouse, but he usually only spoke on important matters when someone else initiated the conversation. Zed loved company, but he seemed to appreciate moments of solitude just as much.

Zed had a magnetic personality. He had a certain look in his eyes—and a half smile—that mesmerized his audiences. And an audience is what they were—the mice who visited him were there to be in his company, to hear him speak, to be rejuvenated. No one could quite explain why he had such an effect on them.

What they knew, and what every other mouse came to know, was that Zed was a mouse like no other. He did not care for cheese, he did not care to learn how to navigate the maze, and he did not feel compelled to follow the routines and customs of the other mice. Yet, somehow, it was clear that Zed loved his life—the life of a mouse—more than any other mouse they had ever known.




One of the younger mice in the group spoke first.

“Zed,” began the young mouse, “my friends and I were discussing the good book. We were talking about how we might learn to accept change—how we might get past idle speculation about ‘why’ change happens. You know, it is said that change is inevitable and cannot be controlled … Well, certainly you’ve read the good book. Anyway, my friend here mentioned that you do not care much for the book. That you do not really believe what it says. Which is—well, I must say that I think you’re wrong. I mean … Of course, I want to hear why you would think so. Everyone says that you are a great thinker and that you are very wise. But … I know that you’re wrong. How can you possibly reject the great insight of our age—of all ages! I was hoping—well, we were hoping to hear what you had to say about it. It’s not true, is it? Do you disagree that change is inevitable?”

Zed smiled. “I do not disagree. The good book is quite right. Change is inevitable.”

The young mouse was visibly relieved. He felt he should thank Zed. He was about to express his gratitude when Zed spoke again.


Even the “Impossible”


The crowd was aghast. They turned to see who had spoken those impossible words. They turned to see whether anyone would lay claim to such an utterance. They turned and saw Max. No one had seen him in almost a year. He was exultant.

Max was looking past the crowd—through them. His gaze was fixed on Zed. He did not seem to notice the crowd.

“I know who moved the cheese,” Max repeated. “And I will tell you about it.” He was speaking only to Zed.

The crowd was silent. They would have quickly disregarded the outburst as a lunatic’s rant, but Max had a look in his eyes that dismissed such a notion. Each of the mice, individually, knew that he was serious. As a group, they were unwilling to consider this possibility. They did not know what to think. They did not want to think. Each of them was waiting for someone else to do the thinking—for someone in the crowd to decide how they should all react. Finally, the elderly mouse snickered.

“How wonderfully absurd! We have no time for tall tales. We were having a serious discussion here. Awfully rude of you to interrupt us like that, don’t you think? Well, we won’t be baited by your silly remarks. Come, friends. This discussion is going nowhere. And it’s getting late. I, for one, have better things to do.”




“One year ago today, I made a promise to myself. It was a decision—the most difficult decision I had ever made. I decided that I would discover why the maze was designed as it is; I would discover why the cheese moved; and I would discover who moved the cheese. At the time, I had no reason to believe that I would be able to discover these things. I only knew that I had to spend my life trying.

“For weeks, I spent time talking with other mice, especially the elders. I asked each of them whether they knew the answers to my questions. Not one of them did. And not one of them understood why I was asking. To them, curiosity is natural in a young mouse, but it doesn’t mean that mice have the ability to satisfy their curiosity. That is what they told me: Not all questions that begin with why have answers—and even if they did, it was not for mice to know. It was not for mice to question. It was for mice to accept. But, you see, Zed, I could not.

“Finally, I came to the same conclusion that all other young mice come to. I concluded that a mouse in the maze could never understand why. But, unlike other mice, I did not do the next logical thing—which is to stop wondering why.




It was not his real name, but everyone called him Big. The reason was quite obvious: he was big. He was by no means the largest mouse in the maze. He was not genetically predisposed to being as large as some mice are. But he was the strongest mouse in the maze. It was not even a contest—he was the strongest mouse any other mouse could have imagined. And he was big because he wanted to be big—and because he worked at it.

It is rare to see a mouse exercising. It is practically unheard of in the maze. There is no reason for it—obtaining cheese is hardly ever a test of strength. In any case, Big did not eat very much. While a mouse will typically eat any and all cheese that he can find, Big ate just enough to support his growth. There was often cheese left on the ground after Big completed his meals. This was strange to other mice. For them, a meal was over only when there was no more cheese left to eat.

Unlike others, Big never even went in search of food. He never had to do so. If he went to eat and found that the cheese had been moved, he wasn’t bothered. His daily workout involved enough running through the maze that he invariably ran into new piles of cheese every few hours. On the rare occasion that he did not find any cheese, he would simply not eat. His friends would ask him, “Why don’t you go look for cheese today?”




Max continued his tale.

“Big came to me one day and said that he had heard I was attempting something crazy. He smiled as he said the word crazy, as if to emphasize his indifference to the term. I did not know Big—I had never even heard of him—but the sight of him was stunning. I have never seen a mouse so strong—so complete. When he told me his name was Big, I had to smile.

“Big told me that he had overheard some mice talking about ‘this fella Max’ who was pursuing an impossible goal. He became interested when he heard one of the mice say that I should quit being a child and go find some cheese. When another mouse added roughly that I was in my own little world, playing by my own rules, and that I was setting a bad example for the younger mice, Big decided he had to come and see me.

“Big was not interested in why I wanted to scale the wall. He did not ask me whether I thought it was possible. Instead, he asked me how high I estimated the wall to be.

“I told him it was as high as four mice.


Who Moved My Cheese?


Max continued his story.

“There are other ‘beings’ out there. They are like mice, but bigger. They are smarter than most mice but not as smart as some. They are called people. Some of these people created the maze, and it exists for their pleasure and profit—for their purposes.

“Our world—that which is our given—is no such thing. It is not a given outside the maze. It is designed. Its design suits the needs and interests of those who are in control. These people are the ones who give shape to our maze. They create our rules and provide our rewards and punishments. They can do this because we love cheese more than anything else. They can do this because we are mice in a maze. And for a mouse in a maze, it is all about the cheese.

“Since my first expedition outside the maze—I have had many since—I have learned a tremendous amount. I spent many months learning the language of people. I listened to them and read what they wrote. I discovered that our maze is one of many. There are other mice and other beings. While all beings are different, they are also similar in some ways.


I Moved Your Cheese


“Once I learned the language of people, I spent much of my time studying them. I also read what they wrote about the maze. I learned how they designed it and for what purpose. I learned why they moved the cheese and how they decided where to move it. Many of the questions I had asked since childhood were answered. I discovered why there are so many useless paths in the maze, and why there are so many different ways to get to the same place.

“I learned all of this, and it explained why things work the way they do in the maze. But it did not justify it. In fact, there was no justice in it whatsoever. Those who had designed the maze had done so for their own benefit and for their own purposes. But they did not live in the maze. We did. I came to understand the why, but I was unwilling to accept it.

“So I decided to do something about it.

“Discovering how to do it took only a few weeks. Each night, the administrators who designed our maze left instructions for their assistants. In the morning, the assistants read the instructions and made the appropriate changes to the maze. They then studied the mice all afternoon and noted their observations in a logbook. In the evening, the administrators read the data provided by their assistants and decided on the instructions for the following day. The same cycle repeated every day. It was all very mundane.




Max had finished his tale. The look on his face suggested that he was content. He wanted nothing from Zed. He was not seeking approval. He was not looking for a specific reaction.

“Thank you for sharing your story with me,” said Zed. “Yours is truly a remarkable journey. You are a mouse like no other.”

It was now dark.

“Let’s talk more tomorrow,” Zed suggested. “It is getting late. Will you meet me here in the morning?”

“Yes,” said Max.

Max expected Zed to get up and walk past him down the passage. Instead, Zed turned toward the corner and began to walk straight toward the wall. Max looked at him, confused. This was a dead end. Was Zed planning on staying here, in the corner, for the night? Had he become disoriented?

Zed kept walking.

It was perhaps a moment before Zed walked headfirst into the wall that Max opened his mouth to shout a warning: “Stop!”

And then he saw it happen.

Before his very eyes, Max saw Zed walk through the wall. He walked through it as if the wall were not even there … as if the wall were made of nothing but air … as if the wall simply did not matter. And he was gone. Max stood there, staring blankly at the wall.


The Maze in the Mouse


Max arrived at their meeting place early the next morning. He had not slept all night. But he felt more awake—more alive—than ever. He noticed that he was looking down the long passage in anticipation of Zed. He had to laugh.

Any other mouse would have to walk down that passage to come here, he thought. But Zed did not. He did not have to do anything. He could appear from anywhere.

And then he saw Zed walking toward him, as any other mouse would, down the long passage. And he laughed again.

Once they had greeted each other and were seated, Zed spoke.

“Yesterday, Max, before you started your story, you told me that everything you were going to tell me was true. ‘Even the impossible.’”

“That’s right,” agreed Max.

“Well,” said Zed, “let me start by saying that nothing I will tell you is impossible.”

Max nodded.

Zed went on. “What would you say if I told you that there was no difference—none—between what you accomplished when you exited the maze and what I did last night?”

“I would say that it may be true, but I don’t see how it is possible,” replied Max.


A Mouse Like No Other


Max and Zed had sat together now, in silence, for almost an hour. Neither had more to say. Neither was in any rush to leave.

Max was thinking—his mind was working to understand, to capture, all that Zed had just explained to him. He knew that it would be a long time before he could realize—to make real for himself—what he was beginning to comprehend. But the conversation had left him energized. He was happy.

Zed was also thinking. He was thinking about the incredible mouse sitting before him, who had managed to climb out of the maze and take control of his world. He had learned something from Max—something he had never cared to know before. But, knowing it now, he was amused … It had been Max, working away in the logbook outside the maze, who had placed that fresh piece of cheese he found next to his bed each morning.

After some time, the two mice parted. They would meet again as friends.

Each would continue to follow his own path. But each would be helped along in his journey—strengthened by the knowledge of the other … knowing that somewhere in the maze—or beyond—there was a mouse like no other.


Some Mice Are Big


It was a day like any other for Big. He woke up, stretched, and then began his morning run. He ran through the maze—fast—following his usual path. He normally ran for an hour, and then shifted his attention to strength training.

Big had used a single criterion when he first decided to chart out the path he would follow during his morning runs. Big wanted to sprint at maximum speed through the maze and did not want the hassle of having to dodge crowds of other mice. His path consisted of the least crowded passages in the maze.

But on this day, Big noticed that something had changed. The passages he was running through—the ones he had always run through—were crowded. After he finished his run, he reflected on this. He realized that the population of mice in the maze had been increasing, slowly, for quite some time. He had noticed this earlier, in some parts of the maze, but never thought much about the trend until today. Today, it had affected his run.

Something had to be done about it. Big spent the afternoon walking through the maze, exploring it fully. He paid special attention to the more remote passages. After he felt that he had seen enough, he considered his options.


Reflection Questions for Individuals


1. Describe the key traits of Max, Big, and Zed. Which characteristics are most impressive? Which would be most useful to you if you cultivated them?

2. Who would you most like as a boss: Max, Big, or Zed? Who would you most like as a colleague, or as someone who reports to you? As a friend? Why?

3. Can you think of a time you walked through a wall when no one else thought it was possible? Can you think of a time you escaped from a maze when no one else thought to even pursue that objective? If so, how did you do it? If not, what has kept you from doing so?

4. What are some of the mazes in which you find yourself today? Are they of your choosing? Would you like to escape? How can you do that in a positive, productive way?

5. In the chapter titled “Big,” what does Big mean when he says, “That’s not the game I’m playing”? What game is Big playing?

6. What game are you playing? Is it the right game for you?

7. If you told Max about your life, what advice would he give you?

8. If you told Zed about your greatest concerns or fears, what would he say?


Discussion Questions for Groups and Book Clubs


1. What are some of the mazes in which you, or people you care about, seem to be running? How would you describe these mazes? Who designed them? What keeps people running? Would they benefit from an escape?

2. In the chapter titled “The Maze in the Mouse,” what does Zed mean when he says: “You see, Max, the problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse”? Do you think this is true? If so, how does that happen? Can you think of mazes that people believe are external but that are really inside the person? How can we escape them?

3. Max, Big, and Zed escape the maze—and each of them does it in a unique way. What traits does each mouse represent? What can we learn from the approach that each of these mice pursued?

4. Do you think Max could have escaped the maze without Big’s help?

5. Have you, or anyone you know, ever walked through a wall? How? What does it take? Why can’t everyone do it?

6. What do you think of Zed’s explanation for his abilities? Does it make sense to you? Do you believe what Zed believes?


Discussion Questions for Your Organization (or Team)


1. If Max were to study your organization, what would he say? What advice would he give?

2. If Zed were asked to evaluate the assumptions in your organization—those things that are taken for granted—what would be his evaluation? What advice would he give?

3. Why were so many of the other mice in the maze uncomfortable with the issues that Max and Zed raised? Clearly, many of these mice had overcome the fear of change. What was the fear that remained?

4. How would you describe the strengths of Max, Big, and Zed? Which of these strengths do you think are prevalent in your organization? Which of them are under-represented? How can these strengths be cultivated?

5. What are the mazes that exist within your organization, or in your organization’s environment? Who designed them? Why do they persist? What are the taken-for-granted goals—your equivalent of the pursuit of cheese—that may be worth reconsidering?

6. What, precisely, stands in the way of changing things in your organization? Are there things that can and should be changed immediately? Are there things that cannot be changed in the short run but that can and should be changed over time? Are there steps that need to be taken today to ensure positive change in the future?



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