Don’t Make it All About Your Cheese!

About a year ago, I took on a new responsibility as a Career Development Manager at Atomic Object. In addition to my normal consultant duties, I now get to work with a small group of people to help them plan out their professional development. I frequently get to have conversations with people about what their goals are, where they aspire to go with their careers, and what sorts of things they are doing to get there.

As part of my own professional development, I recently read the book, Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson. While I found the book interesting and thought-provoking, there were a few things that I see differently when it comes to thinking about careers.

Who Moved My Cheese?

The book tells the story of four fictional characters who spend their lives in a giant maze. One day, they happen upon a giant pile of cheese, and they are instantly overjoyed. They set up their lives near the cheese and plan to stay there with it forever, basking in eternal happiness. In a shocking turn of events, the cheese suddenly disappears, upending the lives of the four maze-dwelling fellows.

The majority of the story is spent describing how each of the characters responds to the disappearing cheese. Some of them immediately begin exploring the maze again, hoping to find where the cheese had gone. Others are reluctant to move and remain at the empty storeroom, hoping that the cheese will magically reappear. Some of the characters don’t seem surprised that the cheese went away, while others are shocked, outraged, and feel cheated, as if they were entitled to enjoy the cheese forever.

As I see it, the main takeaway of the book is that we should focus on a goal (the cheese), but anticipate that the goal might change. Some outside force might move the target on us. If and when that happens, we should be ready to analyze the situation and adapt so we can focus our efforts on a new goal.

We should try not to be like the characters who either respond too quickly without giving any thought to the change, or respond too slowly by keeping their focus locked on an outcome that will never come to fruition.

It’s Not All About Cheese

While I don’t disagree with those points, there are a few things that I wish the book had addressed or emphasized.

Choosing a cheese can be difficult.

First, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not always easy to choose a cheese. Very few of us start our careers with a detailed plan that will carry us from graduation to retirement. More often, it seems that we go through life discovering and seizing opportunities that we never even knew existed, and we certainly never considered these options before they were right in front of us.

When so many things in life are unknown and outside of our control, it can be very difficult to say this is the one area where I want to focus my efforts.

You will probably move your cheese.

Even if you pick a cheese, set a goal, and attain it, reaching that goal will not satisfy you forever—no matter what it is. A new car, a new house, a new job title on your business card—it all gets old after a while. In other words, you–not someone or something else–will often be the one who moves your cheese.

So what do we do when we don’t know what our cheese is? How do we plan our efforts? And how do we find a cheese that can deliver long-term satisfaction? I think the answer is: don’t put so much focus on the cheese! Instead, focus on what you already have and how you can make the most out of your current situation.

Improve and enjoy what you already have.

Think about the things you don’t like about your current job. How could you change those duties, or the way you carry them out, so that you might begin to enjoy them more? There is often room to be creative and strive to affect change in the situation where you find yourself right now.

If you work with other people, I guarantee that there is room for you to improve if you focus on the relationships you have with your coworkers. What could you do to enhance the channels of communication? Maybe you need to change a behavior. Or maybe you just need to learn more about another person and what drives and motivates them. If you have negative feelings towards someone, you may need to have a difficult conversation with them.

I can’t tell you what you’re going to be doing three years from now, but I can tell you one thing with a very high level of confidence. If between now and then, you improve your ability to analyze a process, a situation, or a relationship and make it better, you can be happier in the moment and position yourself to achieve more down the road.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have goals, you shouldn’t go for a new position, or anything like that. If you have a concrete goal in mind, great! You should pursue it. Just keep in mind that this goal is likely not going to be the be-all and end-all for you.

And if you don’t know what you want to pursue right now, don’t stress about it. Focus on the here and now and get the most out of your current situation.