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Beliefs that can keep you stuck in a maze

Many of you are familiar with that wonderful fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?, which was published in 1998 and has since sold nearly 30 million copies – having been translated into over 40 languages.

The book told the story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two LittlePeople, Hem and Haw, who were faced with a declining supply of the previously permanently available cheese in the dark maze where they lived. While the mice swiftly accepted the realities of the new situation and boldly went off along the maze’s winding corridors and blind alleys in search of more sources, Hem and Haw refused to accept the need for change, assuming the supply of cheese would resume.

Haw eventually ventured beyond his comfort zone, at first reluctantly and timidly, but gradually more confidently, in a successful quest for new supplies. What happened to Hem though, who remained all alone in his denial, lost and distraught? Did he starve to death? Or did he finally decide to accept the need to change and join the hunt for new cheese?

Now we know, for in 2018 a follow- up book by Spencer Johnson, Out of the Maze, appeared – the year after he succumbed to cancer and passed away. In this little book (it only takes about an hour to read) we follow Hem and his new lady friend, Hope, on their journey to find a way out of the maze.

Let me not spoil how the story develops, so let me just explain that Spencer builds the message of this fable around the need for positive “beliefs”, like: don’t assume you can only eat cheese, as an apple can be tasty too. And when there may be no more of them either you have to choose other new foods, other beliefs.

To make the point with clarity and impact, the book includes periodic full-page “ads” to nudge us into helpful beliefs, including a final cumulative one that reads: Notice your beliefs, Don’t believe everything you think, Let go of what isn’t working, Look outside the maze, Choose a new belief, There are no limits to what you can believe.

All around us, every day, we observe how enabling or disabling beliefs can be. Just think of ones that brought down some of the most prominent companies in the world, such as Kodak, Nokia and BlackBerry, who held on to the erroneous belief that the future would be like the past.

And at the personal level, what about all those workers whose jobs are being replaced by technology, or at least where their survival depends on acquiring robust digital skills? Will they ignore the need to transform themselves, or act like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand so as to avoid what it wouldn’t wish to see?

As I was listening recently to one of the Democratic candidates for the US presidency, I was struck by the story he told of pausing at a truck-stop in Iowa where he engaged with some of the drivers while campaigning. But he said he didn’t dare ask any of them what thought they had given to the fact that their jobs would disappear when driverless vehicles start taking over… for fear they would punch him in the face! Now that’s holding on to beliefs that will condemn them to becoming as obsolete as a dinosaur.

Johnson’s powerful theme is that all of your accomplishments, all of your failures, are due to your beliefs: Whether you’re confident or insecure, cynical or positive, open-minded or inflexible. Of course it’s awfully difficult, so inconvenient, to change your beliefs. But unless you reflect on ours – and as leaders on those of the people around you – beware of remaining stuck in your maze. As you examine your beliefs, hopefully a good many of them will merely be validated and reinforced. But where they need to be replaced, prepare to expand your comfort zone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Just like reading (or rereading) Who Moved my Cheese? is a must. In this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, carry them with you and keep challenging yourself. Every day.