Here, at last, is the reason why you and I don't have everything we want out of life while it seems everyone else does: It's because we don't know who moved the damn cheese.

This almost slipped past us regular schmoes undetected, even though "Who Moved My Cheese?" has been right there, inexplicably, atop many bestseller lists for weeks and weeks and, well, all right, a year. (Currently it's No. 2 in Business Week and No. 1 on USA Today's business books list. This might be because there are people like the executive vice president for customers at Southwest Airlines, who bought 27,000 copies, one for everyone on the payroll--baggage handlers included.)

There has been almost no press about "Who Moved My Cheese?"--no book tours, no one who wanted to interview the author, no advertising. The cover makes it look like a misguided diet fad or a flatulence joke heard from the back of a minivan full of fifth-graders. Inside is a story that makes "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" look like Tolstoy.

It's a parable for the workplace from Spencer Johnson, the medical-doctor-turned-efficiency-guru who co-wrote "The One Minute Manager" all those years ago, which, for a time, turned everyone's boss into an attention-deficient cartoon character. Johnson now lives happily in Hawaii. When you call him, if you call him, he puts you on the speakerphone and you can hardly hear him over the surf.

"Who Moved My Cheese?" says something about the American work ethic, something about that underlying sense of panic, in a cute way. It takes America's sometimes-onerous entrepreneurial gospel (outrun, outsell, set your goals, shake hands firmly, repeat the client's first name to establish intimacy) and suggests that not only do you have to find your own reward, but you have to seek out new rat races as well.

Bosses love this: Subtextually, the "Cheese" metaphor suggests that it's your fault for looking in the wrong places for the wrong cheese. It's either the fuzziest, most profound thing you've ever heard or it makes you want to wire up a pipe bomb to a consultant's flip chart.

It goes like this: Two mice (Sniff and Scurry) and two humans (Hem and Haw) live in a maze and live off a pile of cheese. When the cheese supply dries up, the mice go find some more and the humans stand around and stress out about it. Finally, one of the humans, Haw, does as the mice do and sets out for new cheese. Along the way, it occurs to him to write several insights on the walls of the maze ("The Quicker You Let Go of Old Cheese, the Sooner You Find New Cheese," etc.).

There you go.

The secret of America's top executives.

More to the point, it is the secret that the bosses of the world like to drill into their employees, which, when you peel back the happy layer, is the same as it ever was: Get with the program, people. "Who Moved My Cheese" suggests that the program switches constantly and it's your fault if you miss out.

Your boss has no idea where the cheese went, either, but he or she would like you to move without question. This is because our world is now addicted to change. We've confused the message: "Don't stand around and whine about things for the rest of your life," which sounds a lot like your mother, has become "Don't wonder why the maze is so confusing; just learn it," which sounds a lot like Mr. Dithers.

What "Who Moved My Cheese?" really is--on the second or third interpretation--is the same old lecture about your attitude problem, mister. It comes at a time when everyone is looking for a better, wealthier raft on which to cling for a minute or two. It's so stupid, it's smart; so unthreatening, it's perky. And it fits in a coat pocket.

"The More Important Your Cheese Is to You the More You Want to Hold On to It." (Page 36)

The cheese phenomenon keeps moving, with more followers all the time. Ohio State University's business school has offered classes on "Who Moved My Cheese?"; the book also has its advocates at the Harvard Business School. Cheese enthusiasts, according to the book's publisher, Penguin Putnam, allegedly abound at General Motors, Citibank and Dell Computer; "buying circles" of the book reported on (sales rank: 14) include customers at Eastman Kodak, Charles Schwab and others.

At the recently morphed Exxon Mobil Corp.--the two petroleum giants are each listed in the book's buying circles and presumably had a good part of their own cheese moved around lately--a spokeswoman says that while the book may or may not be used to train managers, "I'm lactose-intolerant, so I wouldn't know."

Keep scratching your head; cheese devotees have a way of sneaking up on you. A nurse in Kentucky gave it to patients facing long rehabilitations; the book has made it to church pulpits and high school psychology classes. At recent conventions of everyone from dentists to hotel managers, entire afternoons have been given over to discussing the cheese paradigm.

Washington Redskins running back Brian Mitchell told a Post sportswriter in November that "Who Moved My Cheese?" helped him better his game this season by turning "the negative into positive. . . . My cheese is to get to the playoffs."

And look what happened.

Set in large type for football player and CEO alike, "Who Moved My Cheese?" is touted as requiring only 45 minutes to read from cover to cover--perhaps faster, we're thinking, if you read at a level beyond junior high. Even faster if you skip the prologue, in which a bunch of people at a high school reunion gather close to hear a successful classmate tell his life-changing story of the maze and the cheese. (If you're seriously pressed for time or boardroom synapse, author Johnson's a 15-minute cartoon version on video. Aficionados also like the audiotape version; they listen to it over and over while they drive.)

"Smell the Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old" (Page 52)

It all began at management seminars.

That makes sense. Have you ever been lost in a conference center or a convention hotel and stumbled into the wrong workshop, but lingered anyway? The overhead transparencies look the same. The guru looks the same. The audience looks as bored. But the secrets are all different; the stratagems aren't your stratagems, the goals not quite your own. What is process-mapping? Where am I on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? Who are the dolphin-thinkers? What would my weekly numbers be? Where are my millions?

All we've ever known about people with real jobs we learned in bits and pieces, from "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," "Dilbert" and "Ally McBeal," and various reconnaissance missions into the fern-and-Xerox jungle, where there are framed posters on the wall of waterfalls with sayings about Success or Teamwork and other twisted ideas. What do business people think about all day?


They think about cheese.

Out where the palm trees sway, Spencer Johnson claims to be amazed at the success of "Who Moved My Cheese?" although in his many years as a hired motivational gun and author of the "One Minute" series, people were always begging him to stop what he was doing and once again tell the little story about the mice and the cheese.

Johnson also knows that, even as it finds eager ears in some blue-chip corporations, the book has plenty of critics. ("I read this book more than 20 years ago when it was called 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull,' " groused an reader. Another wrote: "I decided not to share this book with co-workers for fear they might take their cheese to another employer!")

"The irony is the people who dismiss it are the people who could benefit from it the most," says Johnson, 62. He wrote it, he says, as his gift to the world, since he has his fortune. "Everywhere I went, people were asking me to write this book. I thought it was too simple or it wasn't something the world needed. I had enough bestsellers and money to not write for a long time. Then I moved to the island and found some new cheese myself."

He talks for a stretch, punchily, about people who've had their lives changed by "Who Moved My Cheese?"--marriages saved, win-win situations, empires advanced. "It's so simple and unthreatening. As you watch the characters, you can discover yourself in the story. . . . I wrote it very quickly."

Really? It doesn't show.

"Ha, ha," he says.

"Imagining Myself Enjoying New Cheese Even Before I Find It, Leads Me to It" (Page 58)

Let's quibble, then nibble.

"Who Moved My Cheese?" never answers its own question: Who did move the cheese?

See, you ask that because you are a cynic. You've questioned the whole metaphor; you've torn away a curtain. If you sense the futility of a world that ruthlessly giveth and taketh the cheese, then you probably get no cheese. No amount of framed waterfall posters can save you.

So it's not where the old cheese went; it's where the new cheese is going. What horrible news for people like you, people like me, people who want out of the maze entirely, people with--let's face it--attitude problems.

We're thinking here of another book, another mouse, which is far more complicated, ambiguous, not fixated on reward--"Stuart Little" by E.B. White. In the end, Stuart has no idea where he's going, and he's learned a thing or two about the real world: "Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. . . . As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction."

But even Stuart Little has found new cheese, in Hollywood. It's Geena Davis cheese. It's computer-animated cheese. It's boffo box office cheese, and, as usual, you and I didn't get any.

CAPTION: Spencer Johnson on his bestseller: "The irony is the people who dismiss it . . . could benefit from it the most."

CAPTION: The fables in the best-selling "Cheese" encourage pursuing new goals.