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!)?