18 Aug 2011


At the department retreat 10 years ago, our Boss gave a talk titled “Who moved my cheese?”. The readers are probably familiar with this parable by Spencer Johnson. In brief, two mice and two men used to live in a maze and feed on a big chunk of cheese. One day, they woke up and found the cheese was missing. The two mice quickly left and searched for new cheese. Afraid of change, the two men stayed at the original spot and debated about what to do. After some time, one of them took the brave step, found new and better cheese, and through the process learned how to adapt to changes.

Like most parables, “Who moved my cheese?” is open for interpretation. When our Boss told the story, his focus was on the changing paradigms in medical research. The talk was inspirational and sincere. The message is of course totally different if a manager fires his workers and at the same time gives them this book. In fact, the most common criticism against this book is that workers are asked to unconditionally sacrifice for changes posed by the administration.

Back to the letter we shared last week. What should we do when the institution we work for does not take responsibilities and has no interest in our developments?

The most important thing I learned from my mentor is the power of autonomy. Who says I must feed on cheese? Can’t I choose rice or meat? Even if I fancy cheese, can’t I make my own cheese?

In essence, don’t let others define what success is. Success can be defined by a variety of ways. Choose the way you yourself believe in. If you are truly interested in research, don’t compare your income with your classmates in investment banks. If you are talented in some medical procedures, why must you bother about the number of publications? Once you understand what you really want, think outside the box. You do not need to follow others’ footsteps to attain the same goal.

To illustrate the last point, let me share with you a story about my mentor. In many universities, the promotion to a senior academic post requires international reputation. This is a vague concept, but is generally assessed by how often a faculty gets invited to talk in prestigious conferences and serves in professional bodies or biomedical journals. In Asia, however, age counts. Often the department head instead of the junior faculty who is more active in research gets the invitation. When my mentor first joined the university, he had the same problem. Big professors from other countries hardly talked to him, not to mention inviting him to conferences. Many people in this situation would just become more and more frustrated and even give up. Others may bid their time and wait until they have enough gray hair. How about my mentor? Again and again, he introduced himself to different big professors. When he was not invited, he organized his own meetings.

Dear friends, the discussion has been fragmented but I hope you find it comforting. Above all, find your dreams, and don’t succumb to the judgment of others.


  1. Unfortunately, we are lacking the culture of fostering the development of "self internal values" of our youngsters in the education system, be it primary, secondary or tertiary. The only parameters to measure success are those that are quantifiable "benchmarks": ranking, impact factors, XYZ-indexes, no. of qualifications/ awards/ certificates.
    The increasing demand for these induces further supply and the vicious cycle continue. This is how "diploma hyperinflation" occurs.
    So, you see why I lend you that particular investment book with no "numbers" in the words. Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.

  2. With such definition of "success", how much precious jewelry will be missed?

    The precious jewelry will sparkle in the hands of a jewelry appraiser.

    When some are finding the dreams, some need to be the appraisers.