Jul 10

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The cheese is gone

I just caught the tail end of an HBO documentary called “Hard Times:lost on long island” which followed four familiis as they struggle with the downturn in the US economy. I must say it brought back some troublesome memories.

I remember well being unemployed for several years, wondering where the money for food was going to come from, battling depression, not knowing how to change things…all while battling a broken body to boot. It was not a good time.

A few years ago, a friend recommended a book called “Who moved my cheese?” by Spencer Johnson and I kept thinking about how these families really needed to read it. The book talks about 4 mice who always take the same path through a maze to the awaiting cheese. One day the cheese isn’t there, and the mice have to deal with the fact. One of the mice, just continues to return to the same spot, day after day…he can’t think of anything else to do, it’s what he’s always done…and that was the story of these families.

They had been conditioned from birth to “get a job”, when they were terminated, they continued to try to “get a job”, by definition, full time employment, in their field, with a big corporation, they didn’t know anything else. True, they did have to face issues like ageism, and being “overqualified” to work at Home Depot (though, I think it was arrogant of the business guy to assume Home Depot employees aren’t knowledgable (maybe he really was “under qualified”), but they did seem to be stuck in a rut.

None of the people seemed to make a significant change in their lifestyle. The chiropractor just continued business as usual when cliental decreased by 25%, sure they tried to refinance, but that’s just juggling debt. In the same country which allows  Extreme Couponing (something not possible in Canada to the same extent), these people went to church hampers.

Being a documentary, there was probably some heavy editing to tell the story the producers wanted, so I have no idea how people with six figure incomes became bankrupt within 2 years, but my guess would be they continued to live as they had…looking for the cheese to return. They probably had no idea of other ways to make money, and never had made money any other way. The film had plenty of mob scenes of people demanding jobs from the government…but the cheese was still gone.

Getting back to the Who moved my cheese? book, the story also told the tale of a different mouse, who eventually began to explore the maze (it actually tells the story of 4 mice, but two quickly leave and are never heard from again). Sometimes this mouse found some cheese, sometimes he didn’t, but eventually he does discover a new, better source.

This, unknowingly, was the path I wound up taking when I ran into the same situation. I wanted to work, but I couldn’t. I wanted my business to continue as it had, but it couldn’t. I went into depression, just like the people in the documentary…the difference was, I explored other paths in the maze.

I went against conventional wisdom and, shortly after getting into the accident, but while my credit was still good, I bought another rental property putting my family into another large debt. I took some of our meagre savings and invested them in some stocks I thought would do well. I looked at ways my, and my wife’s businesses would have to change… I was learning to swim by jumping in the deep end of the lake, with no room for error. I needed to learn quickly, and not make mistakes.

It wasn’t easy, not everything worked out as expected, but I never stood still. I kept on top of things, making adjustments to the plan as required, trying to fight the fires as best as I could short term, always with an eye to the long term. There were many sleepless nights. Many days of self doubt. Many changes to our lifestyle.

It was the constant looking that eventually tried things around. A small success in a completely unrelated business (making candy for a farmer’s market) was the crack in the dam that was holding me back. Water erodes. The small crack, soon began to open up to a trickle of success. I took a contract job I didn’t want to do, but it helped. Eventually, those long term investments I had made early on (I don’t believe in get rich quick, never have, I believe in low risk which, unfortunately, usually requires lots of time) paid out better than expected and that other rental saved our house for us.

I truly feel sorry for what these people are going through, I’ve been there. The problem is they don’t know what to do, and I didn’t either. I was lucky, my instincts took me down the right path…for these people, they need to read the book and realize that the cheese is gone, and they need to keep moving…even if it goes in odd directions. There is no guarantee that they will find the cheese, we don’t know what happened to two of the mice, but I doubt the cheese will return in America. They need to keep moving, trust in themselves, and make adjustments on the fly.

There is nothing new in this documentary, nor is it an American problem, ask the Newfoundland fishermen. The difference may be reading blogs like this and books like Who moved my cheese? Neither will change anything for you directly, but it may show you you aren’t alone, and point you in the right direction. No one knows the path in your maze, each one is different, but if you change and adapt you may find the way.

Lesson: The game has changed, if you don’t adapt, you’ll probably die. They took the cheese and it probably won’t be back.

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