The Coronavirus Moved My Cheese

A best-selling parable provides invaluable lessons in today's challenging times.

By Bonnie J. Ricci with attribution to Spencer Johnson, M.D.*

Let me begin with a suggestion. If you are one of the handful of people who have not read the iconic parable Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D., then I suggest you give it a read before continuing.

The cheese is definitely gone. Cheese Station C is certifiably closed for business.  The novel Coronavirus has taken hold of our population, and it has been accompanied by unprecedented changes to our daily routines.  As adults, our work lives and our home lives have been upended as regions and countries across the globe have implemented versions of stay-at-home orders in an attempt to control the spread of the pandemic. For students, their school lives and home lives are now blurred, and all in-person social activities, including sports, have been cancelled. With school buildings closed and all-but-essential workers out of work or working remotely from home, families are creating a “new normal.” In recognition of our collective vulnerability in the face of the virus, we are holding close to our hearts our loved ones, especially the elderly and immuno-compromised. Things have definitely changed! 

As you may recall in Johnson’s book, Who Moved My Cheese?, the littlepeople named Hem and Haw  live in a maze and put themselves at risk when they become a little too complacent that the seemingly never-ending supply of cheese being provided in the section of the maze known as Cheese Station C will, in fact, be never ending.  They hang up their running shoes, walk instead of run, and generally make themselves comfortable knowing that the cheese will keep coming. Based on past experience, there is no reason for them to think otherwise. 

Meanwhile, while Hem and Haw live it up in the Shangri-La known as Cheese Station C, the other characters in the book, two mice named Sniff and Scurry, serve as a foil as they consume the cheese while carefully monitoring it for small changes. While Hem and Haw expect the cheese to keep coming, Sniff and Scurry anticipate that there will be changes to the cheese and that they will need to change their behavior in response to those changes.  Eventually, the cheese supply in Cheese Station C stops. Sniff and Scurry, having anticipated the change, respond by courageously and steadfastly exploring the other parts of the maze in search of new cheese. Hem and Haw, on the other hand, make the mistake of staying put in Cheese Station C, longing for the days when the cheese was plentiful and insisting that, based on past experience, the cheese will soon reappear.    

As a member of the independent school community, I am proud to witness the large numbers of Sniffs and Scurrys that we have in our midst.  Teachers had almost no time at all to execute one of the most impressive business pivots we have witnessed to date. Even though school buildings were closed, it did not mean teaching and learning had to cease. Almost overnight, teachers became skilled in delivering online lessons and providing opportunities for their students to engage in deep learning in the midst of the pandemic. Collaborative networks were formed overnight, resource sharing went viral, and students’ health and wellbeing quickly, and appropriately, became the priority. When Coronavirus moved the cheese, teachers threw on their running shoes and explored the other parts of the maze in order to seek out new, and perhaps better, cheese. While the shift to online learning has presented challenges, it is obvious that teachers are serving as role models as they adjust their approach to adapt to the changes in our society. Furthermore, it is not difficult to imagine that when things return to “normal,” teachers will be eager to utilize their new skills and will enjoy the chance to continue adapting their curriculum and approach. As the handwriting on the wall of the maze claims, “The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese” and “Savor the Adventure and Enjoy the taste of new cheese!” (Johnson, 74).  When things return to normal, our teachers will no longer be content to hang up their running shoes. They have tasted new cheese and they will certainly want to keep exploring the maze to find it! As the Sniffs and Scurrys in this pandemic, our teachers deserve our admiration, appreciation, and reverence!

What about our students and their families? Where are they in the maze? They, too, have tasted new cheese.  Families have had to adapt quickly, make adjustments along the way, and figure out how to (mostly) peacefully coexist together. Families are bonding in powerful ways. Kitchen cooking projects, living room obstacle courses, and family choirs singing Corona versions of classic tunes are just a few examples of the new cheese that has been discovered. Families are turning to “good news” stories and are seeking positive messages in which to relish and share (see talking dogs and living room concerts). Students are seeing their peers create and donate masks to hospitals; and recently retired health care workers are stepping up to provide much-needed relief to the front-lines nurses who are selflessly, courageously, and compassionately acting as heroes in this crisis.

Some are wondering whether these positive effects from the pandemic will linger after things go back to “normal.” If you ask Sniff or Scurry, once you taste the new cheese, you won’t be content to sit around and wait for the old cheese to return. The Coronavirus has moved the cheese, and Johnson’s best-selling parable provides a timely and relevant lesson for these times. In the midst of these changes, each one of us faces a choice.  The choice is whether we accept the change, adapt quickly, and…wait for it…ENJOY the Change or whether we actively resist the change and long for the days when our cheese will return.

To be clear, living in the midst of this pandemic has not been easy. I am not advocating for us to “enjoy” the results of this pandemic with its high death toll and enormous physical and emotional impacts. I am, however, suggesting that the Coronavirus may provide us with opportunities to embrace the idea that anticipating, accepting, and enjoying change may be beneficial to society. Accepting that change happens may be the first step in ultimately enjoying the process of change. The Coronavirus may have moved the cheese, but we are a resourceful, courageous, and hungry people.  Let’s go find more.


*Portions of this article are attributed to Spencer Johnson, M.D., and the original version of Who Moved My Cheese?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998 can be found here.

Subscribe to the newsletter

Our weekly newsletter, Insights, shares articles, tips, and job announcements for nonprofit and educational leaders!