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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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