Curveball from the Couch


Many of you would have heard about the book, Who Moved My Cheese. It is a best-selling book that has been translated into 37 languages and describes the poor mouse that makes his way around the laboratory maze every day, only to find a decreasing lump of cheese. One day, the inevitable happens and mouse is shocked when his cheese is gone and cries “who moved my cheese?” Many of us may relate to this metaphor concerning the denial about change until it confronts us squarely in the eyes. My Harvard negotiations professor, Deepak Malhotra, a profoundly gifted thinker and writer saw the problem of change through an empowering framework and wrote a powerful rejoinder, I Moved Your Cheese.

In Malhotra’s book, we discover the ‘mouse’ who designed mazes. This was a mouse who was in charge of his own destiny. Malhotra’s argument was simple and compelling. The mouse that goes searching for cheese every day is the way many of us live; the pursuit of sustenance. The ability to feed oneself is a prerequisite to almost every other activity, but as the professor implies, there is more to life than chasing cheese. But there was a second powerful message that resonated with me. The mouse in the maze is passive. He is following someone else’s path for a reward placed by someone else. The unstated reality of the maze is that someone else creates it and places the cheese.

The metaphors about the mice and their mazes struck a chord with me. Some of you may recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a neat triangle that describes our personal journeys that may ascend from survival, getting the ‘cheese’, through to self-actualisation. Self-actualisation is that state that some of us aspire to where we see the world and ourselves though the lens of objectivity, where we can access our creativity, spontaneity and follow our own path. In Malhotra’s metaphor, self-actualisation is when we become the maze maker. This is when we design our own destiny.

I know that many of you reading this will have some examples come to mind of someone being distressed after facing a predictable crisis. Wearing my psychiatrist’s hat, and please try hard not to visualise what a psychiatrist’s hat actually looks like (which just made you try, right?), we have many adjectives to describe this situation of the shocked mouse running out of cheese. Try this exercise: think of all of the words psychiatrists use to describe people and put the positive words, like ‘resilience’ in the first column and the negative words, like ‘depressed’ in the second. I am certain that the second column will be very long and you will struggle to find more than a handful of words in the first column. What does this tell us?  Most of the adjectives that we psychiatrists use suggest a world-view through the lens of pathology. Does this bias the way the psychiatrist sees the world? I think it does.

If you have ever read a psychiatrist’s report about someone experiencing distress in the face of a personal crisis, you are likely to be familiar with the diagnosis, Adjustment Disorder or maybe even depression. As a psychiatrist, I have never been entirely comfortable categorising people who are facing life challenges as having a mental illness. In many ways it is normal, rather than abnormal to feel distress when faced with losses of one kind of another. My discomfort is supported by the medical literature that show no real impact of medication or treatment for Adjustment Disorders.

Some of you may surely say that in order to get help, it may be useful to diagnose an Adjustment Disorder and there is no real harm in getting medical help, right? I’m not so sure. I know from personal experience that there are many times that I would have loved to get life advice, support and direction from a wise old man (or woman). It would make life so much easier for someone to tell me what to do. This ‘support’ is incredibly seductive because I hate making decisions, especially tough decisions. But every time that I let someone decide for me, I lose an opportunity for personal growth. I am robbed of an opportunity towards self-actualisation.

Sure I will make mistakes, anyone who knows me will list many of them. But every time I have found myself down a blind, empty alley, maybe in search for cheese or love or inspiration, it is an opportunity for me to self-reflect, as painful as that may be. Almost all of the time, I have gotten myself into that blind alley, indirectly or directly as a result of my decisions. It is not always that way, and life can sometimes be cruel to the innocent, but for me, I know that the universe is always very keen to remind me of my errors. For me, I have come to see disappointments and frustrations as the universe giving me what I need, rather than what I want. It may not work for you, but it works for me. Some of the time. If you think about it, this is a life philosophy that is both optimistic and empowering.

Many of you who read this will have the opportunity to speak with someone who is in crisis. It may be a friend, a family member or even a customer. There is no doubt that psychiatry has a role for some situations, but let’s pause about the potential remedies.  We need to pause, because we want to do what is right for the people we care about, not what is easy. Sometimes referring life problems to a doctor to solve is easy. Let’s stand back from the intensity of the suffering and help people to see the opportunities. I write this in the hope that some of you will adopt, or continue with, a humanistic perspective to customers and friends alike and help them become the maze maker on their journey to the top of Maslow’s triangle.

Want to read the books?

Who Moved My Cheese  &  I Moved Your Cheese

Dr Doron Samuell is a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. He is also a graduate of Harvard Business School and graduate from the London School of Economics where he completed a Masters of Behavioural Economics. He is presently enrolled in Sydney University Business School, where he is doing a PhD on the impact of personality on insurance risk. He holds several appointments including Chief Medical Officer of Zurich Insurance, Strategic Advisor to the Insurance Council of Australia, and Chief Medical Officer of Allianz Life insurance and is an appointed Assessor for SIRA in their dispute resolution service. He owns and operates his own businesses, Behaviour, an international Behavioural Economics consultancy and Professional Opinions, a medical risk management company providing assessment services through a panel of 400 medical specialists.  Dr Samuell is using behavioural economics to increase insurance retention, improving the level of disclosures at underwriting and finding algorithmic approaches to improving underwriting. When he is not doing seriously technical things, he enjoys photography, writing, sailing and baking.