Put ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ on top

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Spencer John­son, a one­time physi­cian and chil­dren’s book au­thor, whose best-sell­ing books on busi­ness man­age­ment, in­clud­ing “The One-Minute Man­ager” and “Who Moved My Cheese?,” sold mil­lions of copies and in­spired a cult­like fol­low­ing, died July 3 at a hos­pi­tal in Encini­tas, Calif. He was 78.

The cause was pan­cre­atic can­cer. His death was first re­ported by the San Diego Union-Tri­bune.

In the mid-1970s, Dr. John­son gave up medicine to write in­spi­ra­tional books for chil­dren, all with the word “value” in the ti­tle, such as “The Value of Hon­esty: The Story of Con­fu­cius.”

By the early 1980s, he dis­cov­ered a new for­mula, team­ing with man­age­ment con­sul­tant Ken­neth Blan­chard on “The OneMinute Man­ager,” which urged busi­ness­peo­ple to con­nect with their work­ers by spend­ing a full minute giv­ing sin­cere praise (or, if nec­es­sary, a rep­ri­mand).

Dr. John­son and Blan­chard sold thou­sands of self-pub­lished copies of “The One-Minute Man­ager,” in­cor­po­rat­ing changes sug­gested by busi­ness lead­ers.

“That’s what we call writ­ing for the mar­ket­place,” Dr. John­son said.

When “The One-Minute Man­ager” was picked up in 1982 by a New York pub­lisher, Mor­row, it be­came an in­stant best­seller. It also rep­re­sented a mar­ket­ing tri­umph for the au­thors, who in­sisted that it carry the steep cover price of $15, de­spite hav­ing barely 100 pages of text. It came with a money-back guar­an­tee.

Dr. John­son then spun off a se­ries of fol­low-ups, in­clud­ing “The One-Minute Fa­ther,” “The One-Minute Mother” and “One Minute for My­self.”

“It’s the one minute you stop dur­ing the day and look at what you’re think­ing and what you’re do­ing,” he said in 1986. “The real key is that quiet time you lis­ten for your own wis­dom.”

Lis­ten­ing to his in­ner wis­dom or per­haps the voice of op­por­tu­nity, Dr. John­son later em­barked on his sig­na­ture lit­er­ary ef­fort, “Who Moved My Cheese?”

Sub­ti­tled “An A-Maz­ing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life,” the 94-page book, pub­lished in 1998, be­came a No. 1 best­seller, largely through word of mouth and the tes­ti­mo­ni­als of chief ex­ec­u­tives from such com­pa­nies as Proc­ter & Gam­ble and Hewlett-Packard.

The book is a para­ble built around four char­ac­ters: two mice, named Sniff and Scurry, and two peo­ple, Hem and Haw. All four live in a maze and sur­vive hap­pily on cheese un­til one day their cheese dis­ap­pears.

The mice im­me­di­ately scam­per away to find a new source of cheese, while Hem and Haw grouse about their fate and their grow­ing hunger. Even­tu­ally, in this tale of mice and men, Haw de­cides the mice are right, and he goes off to dis­cover what may be in store around the next cor­ner.

He scrawls help­ful tips on the walls of the maze, such as “The Quicker You Let Go of Old Cheese, the Sooner You Find New Cheese.”

The les­son, as old as com­merce it­self, is that it pays to adapt to chang­ing cir­cum­stances.

Peo­ple ate it up, so to speak. Although the book never re­veals who ac­tu­ally moved the cheese, “Who Moved My Cheese?” was stud­ied in busi­ness schools, was dis­trib­uted by the thou­sands to em­ploy­ees and was ap­plied to en­deav­ors of ev­ery kind.

Preach­ers hailed it from the pul­pit, and it was fea­tured at con­ven­tions of den­tists and ho­tel man­agers. Wash­ing­ton Red­skins run­ning back Brian Mitchell said the mes­sage of turn­ing “the neg­a­tive into pos­i­tive” gave him an edge on the grid­iron.

“My cheese is to get to the play­offs,” he said.

Even though the Fi­nan­cial Times de­scribed “Who Moved My Cheese?” as “a 94-page work of stu­pe­fy­ing ba­nal­ity,” that didn’t stop it from be­ing trans­lated into 44 lan­guages and sell­ing more than 28 mil­lion copies. Dr. John­son re­port­edly kept 50 per­cent of the orig­i­nal cover price of $19.95.

“Ev­ery­where I went, peo­ple were ask­ing me to write this book,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2000. “It’s so sim­ple and un­threat­en­ing. As you watch the char­ac­ters, you can dis­cover your­self in the story.”

For some peo­ple, Dr. John­son’s cheese metaphor had an al­most mag­i­cal qual­ity. Oth­ers scoffed that an idea that could mean any­thing re­ally had no mean­ing at all.

“Smell the Cheese Often,” notes one of the book’s pun­gent pieces of ad­vice, “So You Know When It Is Get­ting Old.”

Dr. John­son went on to mar­ket a line of cof­fee mugs, pens, videos and con­fer­ences, known as the “Cheese Ex­pe­ri­ence,” and pub­lished ver­sions of his book for chil­dren.

Oth­ers, how­ever, found “Cheese” ripe for mock­ery, and one par­ody was pub­lished with the in­evitable ti­tle of “Who Cut the Cheese?”

Pa­trick Spencer John­son was born Nov. 24, 1938, in Water­town, S.D., and grew up in Los An­ge­les. His fa­ther was a builder and in­vestor.

Dr. John­son grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1963 and from the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons in Dublin in 1968.

He aban­doned medicine, he said, af­ter con­clud­ing that the un­der­ly­ing causes of ill­ness were largely rooted in the mind rather than the body. He pub­lished more than a dozen chil­dren’s books be­fore em­bark­ing on his “One-Minute” se­ries in the 1980s.

Dr. John­son lived, at var­i­ous times, in Hawaii, New Hamp­shire and Cal­i­for­nia. He gave fre­quent in­ter­views but re­fused to have his pho­to­graph printed with his books.

His first mar­riage, to Ann Done­gan, ended in di­vorce. His second wife, Les­ley Bostridge, died in 2009. Sur­vivors in­clude three sons, a brother and a sis­ter.

Dr. John­son said it took him years to write his books, which were typ­i­cally com­posed in the sim­ple, folksy style of the para­ble.

“I chose it be­cause it’s a most en­joy­able for­mat to read,” he said in 1986. “Peo­ple don’t like to work very hard at any­thing.”

“It’s so sim­ple and un­threat­en­ing. As you watch the char­ac­ters, you can dis­cover your­self in the story.” “Cheese” au­thor Spencer John­son

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