I Moved Your Cheese: Other Life Orientations

I recently read Deepak Malhotra’s I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze (2011), which I found as an ebook via my local public library. I would describe it in brief as Who Moved My Cheese? meets The Matrix.

Some of you may be familiar with Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (1998), a little book that tells the fable of mice in a maze who have differing approaches to dealing with the problem of their cheese being unceremoniously moved each day. The lesson of that book is that change is inevitable in life and in work situations (your job duties may change, you may be reassigned to a different project, you may end up with a different boss with vastly different expectations, and so on), and the best way to deal with change is not to question why things change or feel bad about change but instead to adapt and, in the words of a popular meme today, keep calm and carry on.

While Who Moved My Cheese? offers an important lesson about working productively with change and especially learning to let go of things that are outside of our control, it has also always struck me as incredibly unnerving that this particular book has been so widely championed in corporate culture. The book itself comes with discussion questions geared towards employees, and I have encountered numerous people, including my brother, who have told me that they were given the books by their workplaces and even had book group discussions about it. While I agree with the lesson of adapting to change and learning to let go of things beyond our control, I have never been able to agree that the title question, “Who Moved My Cheese?,” is moot. It is always the question, and I would add related questions about why the cheese was moved, what the rules governing our obsession with cheese are, when the cheese got moved, and where the cheese might be located beyond its new hiding place in the maze. In other words, I have many questions about the whole setup of the maze/workplace and am unwilling to concede that the best approach to life is simply to learn to play the game as expected of me.

Malhotra’s book offers a new fable about mice in a maze that teaches us exactly the importance of asking these questions. Instead of merely searching for the moved cheese, the three protagonists Max, Zed, and Big are driven by other desires and questions. In other words, instead of merely reaching for the goals defined for them by others, they follow their own paths. Max seek to redesign the system in which he find himself and to understand who the system really benefits and why. He succeeds in discovering the scientists who designed the maze, for example, and figures out their experimental logs and procedures. In a literal sense, he is the one who ends up moving the cheese in the maze, and he is the figure of the visionary entrepreneur who becomes extraordinarily successful not by playing other businessmen’s games but by taking control himself. Zed is the spiritual leader who transcends the desire for cheese and the constrictions of the maze entirely. And Big is the athlete-artist figure whose pursuit of something besides cheese leads him outside the orbit of the maze’s economy.

This particular book is resonating with me for a number of different reasons, some of which are directly related to library science education and the impetus for a project like Hack Library School. Here at HLS, we find value in questioning what we are given as library science education, not to demean our programs and professors but rather to engage in productive dialogue about what we are learning. Sometimes, our questions are naive, but it is only in asking them that we gain greater clarity on the reasoning behind particular curricular requirements and class assignments. Furthermore, our curiosity and investment in our own learning helps to make our programs and classes more robust and more accountable to the larger world and work of librarianship. We HLS hackers are not content simply to find our moved cheese anew each day (though we necessarily do that work as well to obtain our degrees and gainful employment as librarians) but also raise questions about how things are done and why. Especially in a field of work changing so rapidly with technological advancements, we must keep abreast of new developments while also questioning whether the next new thing is necessarily a good thing.

More specifically, though, there are two proximate causes for my reflections on this book: news that my MLIS program is moving into the School of Business and Leadership and my recent completion in the spring semester of a required course in management practices for libraries and information centers. About the former, I may have more to say later though my emotions are currently too strong and turbulent to articulate my thoughts rationally and clearly.

About the latter, I’ll note that while I agree with my program that a management class should be required—after all, MLIS professionals are increasingly becoming middle management in libraries as more and more technical work gets assigned to paraprofessionals without the MLIS degree—I had hoped that we could have done more work with alternative visions of management beyond the kind proscribed by business culture (with a focus on profit, efficiency, employee compliance, and hierarchical models of governance). For the final project in that class, I worked with my group to envision a mobile library and information service that was founded on the idea of a collective, driven by social justice goals and embedded in new American communities, as a response to the semester-long immersion in readings and discussions where the assumptions of business culture were never questioned.

I’ll wrap up this lengthy post with a few questions:

  • What kinds of questions do you ask about your MLIS programs or about the world of librarianship?
  • Have you encountered situations where what you are told is the way things are done seems problematic?
  • How do your MLIS programs approach a library management class?
  • How do the values of librarianship, such as intellectual freedom and public access to information, challenge the institutions in which all librarians must work (even libraries themselves!)?

Categories: Reviews

9 replies

  1. The one thing I question about my MLIS program is the dichotomy between our required classes which usually focus on a library environment and at the same time our professors, advisers, and well everyone else in the field telling us that we’ll have to be creative in our job search and look for jobs without the “L” word. I wish our classes would make more of an effort to expose us to these jobs! How am I suppose to sniff out these unconventional jobs if I’m never exposed to them (beyond combing through job postings)?

    I really wish we’d focus on ethic problems, management, instructions, reference, etc outside of the library (whether it be public or academic). I want to learn more about corporate librarianship or even working in a library support service like SerialsSolutions.


    • The professors in my program bring in a wide range of guest speakers into classes to share their experiences working as MLIS graduates, both in traditional libraries and in other settings such as research units of corporations. We’ve been introduced to a lot of solo librarians, too, who work in a range of industries. Although some of these jobs are advertised as librarian positions, others focus on skills that they would like applicants to demonstrate (ability to find information, knowledge management, etc.). Our guest speakers have suggested that we search keywords based on skills that we have as MLIS-trained applicants and then make a strong case in our cover letters for why our background is excellent for the jobs.

      Here at HLS, Nicole raised a similar question last year. There are some good resources in the post and comments, but maybe someone at HLS can revisit the topic of ways to apply for non-traditional library jobs….


    • Thanks for the recommendation! Yes, that book looks like it identifies exactly the uneasiness I have about Who Moved My Cheese? and the way that a business mentality seems so pervasive these days.


  2. I graduated seven years ago from Simmons. A lot has happened since then so I find this blog helps to keep me in the loop. In school we had very few philosophical discussions about the why of librarianship. This summer I took a CE course about Critical pedagogy with Maria Accardi and that spoke to me but I wish it was offered way back in my program. Also, the New Atlas of Librarianship seems to offer something new but I am not well versed in that yet. I think exposure to people who have developed an ethic and a mission is worthwhile. I would like to see what a social justice librarianship program would look like —


  3. Ahh the cheese book – I know it well…that said… you asked what we complain about. We complain about the course structure at our school – a lot, wait lists, no advance notice of classes, many classes in one or two time slots – all of which are desirable…Recently, my LIS school peers and I we were asked to come to an open meeting about a proposed new curriculum and to provide feedback on the “buckets” (their words) that courses were going to be put into – to mainly comment on the names. Curriculum that would not affect us, but the cohorts to come after us – yet we all felt we had a stake in speaking out on issues.

    Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Is it really all about the names? Noticeably absent from the names of the five buckets were: (wait for it)…


    So what’s in a name? Well, if you are in a Master’s of Library and Information Science, Information is good, but if you aren’t talking libraries, you might as well drop the L and become an iSchool.

    Overall – A library school without library is like a mouse without cheese – so I guess the cheese may be moving for future students at our school. But one thing I do know – whether still deep in library school or many years out – all of us have an investment of where our institutions take the profession and how it may shape our roles in society in the future.


    • I’m definitely of the camp of people who hope that we continue to support libraries even as we adapt them for technological changes. Bring back the L! 😀


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