Out of the Maze Summary and Review

by Spencer Johnson

Has Out of the Maze by Spencer Johnson been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

It might sound like a cliché, but it’s true: the only constant in life is change. From our personal relationships, or physical health to our careers and even the whole industry in which we work, we are in a continual state of flux. This is particularly true of our professional lives, marked by constant technological disruptions and economic evolution. In the face of change, we have to choose between three options. The first is to attempt to return to the way things were, which is usually impossible. The second is to stand still, leading to stagnation and getting left behind. The third is to move forward and adapt, and it’s clearly the healthiest, most growth-oriented response – but also very challenging. So how does one adapt to change? In this book summary, we’ll be answering this question by means of a parable, a story that illustrates specific lessons that we’ll depict in the course of unraveling the narrative.

In this summary of Out of the Maze by Spencer Johnson, you’ll uncover

  • the remarkable power to our belief system;
  • the secrets to changing our convictions; and
  • the possibilities that new viewpoints can open up for us.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #1: Taking Happiness and Success for Granted

Our story starts with two small people named Hem and Haw, that live in a maze. They spend their lives running through the maze together, searching for some cheese to eat. One day, they find a place called Cheese Station C, where a seemingly infinite supply of cheese exists. They don’t know where it comes from or how it materializes, but it keeps appearing, day after day. So they stop traveling the maze and settle down at the station, becoming complacent, and starting to feel entitled to the cheese. Then, suddenly, it all disappears. Haw eventually goes hunting for a new supply, but he never returns. Hem stays behind, expecting the cheese to reappear. But it never does. Days go by, and Hem feels more hungry, lonely and scared. Part of him also grows worried about what happened to Haw – but he also seethes over the possibility that Haw just abandoned him. Let’s pause and take a step back at this point. In the story, the cheese that Hem and Haw feasted on is a metaphor for happiness and success. On a literal level, Hem and Haw are looking for cheese, which provides physical nourishment. On a metaphorical level, they’re just like us: searching for fulfillment, which gives us personal nourishment. When we find this satisfaction, we may take it for granted and feel like it belongs to us, similar to Hem and Haw. But when circumstances change, it can disappear. Some people move on, like Haw, while others try to cling to what’s gone, like Hem. This can leave us feeling isolated and empty, as well as anxious or resentful toward those who moved on without us. Change can be tough to accept because it represents the end of the world we knew – the one where we’ve grown up and built our lives. Seeing others accept change can also be difficult because it may feel like they’re ushering in, and even embracing, the end of that world. Conclusively, many people, like Hem, refuse to move on until reality finally forces them to, as we’ll soon find out.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #2: Losing a Source of Happiness or Success

Eventually, Hem grows so hungry he feels compelled to leave Cheese Station C and seek out new cheese. As he explores the maze, he discovers dark corners and pokes his head around them to look for cheese. He doesn’t want to venture into the darkness, because he’s scared to get lost. He never finds cheese here, so he keeps moving. He also passes by what looks to be dead ends in the maze. These seem fruitless too, so he quickly moves on from them. He’s very cautious and unhopeful, which is also how we may feel in the aftermath of change when conditions have forced us to move forward. In doing so, we enter an environment nothing like the one we left behind. Similar to Hem, we don’t want to get lost in a new place, so we don’t venture out too far into unexplored territory. Also, like Hem, we have various paths to take, but many of them may look like dead ends, so we don’t bother to explore them. Hem doesn’t have any luck as he continues moving through the maze. He grows consistently weaker until he finally falls asleep one night from exhaustion. The next morning, he wakes up surrounded by mysterious red objects. They smell like food, but Hem has never seen anything like them before so he’s very skeptical. It turns out that they’re apples, and they’ve been left by another miniature person named Hope, who was waiting for him to awaken. Like Hem, Hope was combing the maze for food, after her previous source was depleted. Now she’s down to her last apples, which she’s generously offered to Hem. Hope coaxes Hem to try the apples and they lift his spirits. The apples symbolize an alternative source of happiness and success. Once he tasted them, we might have expected him to have an epiphany and think, “I don’t need cheese! There are other things I can eat!” But, alas, with newfound strength, he chooses to continue hunting for cheese. His problem, he states, is that he simply hasn’t been trying hard enough to look for cheese in new places. So off he goes, now with Hope joining him in the quest. The lesson here is that when things change and we lose a source of happiness or success, we often continue chasing after it, even after we’ve seemingly moved on. We can even find a new, reenergizing source of fulfillment, only to utilize that energy to fuel our search for that old source! Old habits truly do die hard.
We read dozens of other great books like Out of the Maze, and summarised their ideas in this article called Happiness
Check it out here!

Out of the Maze Key Idea #3: Change, Self-Assurance, and Self-Esteem

As they travel the maze together, Hem and Hope find random morsels of cheese and apples, but only enough for them to just barely survive. As they tread on, Hem gets more nostalgic about the old days, when he and his friend Haw were living amongst the bounty of Cheese Station C. He wishes the circumstances could just go back to the way they used to be. In the aftermath of change, we can fall prey to this unproductive nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with remembering the past fondly, but fixating on how great things were can lead us to resent the present, like what happened with Hem. Hem also finds that he feels less strong and proud then he used to feel. This can happen to us in the face of change too. Whether it’s a job or a relationship, our source of happiness or success is often a source of strength and self-esteem as well. By losing the former, we can also lose the latter. As their bad luck continues, Hope tries to talk some sense into Hem. “Look,” she tells him, “this isn’t working and simply trying harder isn’t going to make it happen. You need a new strategy.” She then made her point in a unique way: “Maybe you should try a new belief.” In other words, find a new way of thinking about the issue of the lack of food. To Hem, this sounded like nonsense. He felt like, you either believe something or you don’t. You can’t up and try a new belief like it was a piece of clothing you can put on and take off at will. Furthermore, he didn’t want to change his views, because they felt like an essential part of who he is as a person. We can imagine other people who may feel the same. For example, think about a man who found happiness in his career as a lawyer, but then loses his job. He keeps searching for a way back into the legal profession but to no avail. Perhaps he should let go of his conviction that he has to be a lawyer to be happy. However, for him, this might seem impossible because that belief feels woven into his identity. So, how can we change our own minds? The answer to that is where the story takes us next.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #4: What Are Beliefs and How To Change Them

While pondering  Hope’s suggestion, Hem recalled when Haw left him behind in Cheese Station C to seek out new sources of cheese. Haw had attempted to convince him to come along, but he refused. Hem asks himself why that happened. He understands that Haw had a different way of looking at their situation. Haw saw Cheese Station C as a dead end and envisioned new possibilities in other sections of the maze. These thoughts existed only in his mind, so they were ideas – and he trusted them. However, Hem mistrusted Haw’s ideas. He trusted his own notions: that cheese might reappear at the station and that leaving to try and find more cheese in new places would be a fruitless endeavor. Based on these reflections, Hem concludes that our beliefs are ideas we can trust. A belief can have a powerful influence on us, in both a good and bad way. Like the contrasting examples of Hem and Haw, a belief can either release us from a dead end or keep us confined inside it. By the same token, it can also lead to us embracing new possibilities or turning our backs on them. Looking back, Hem realized that one of his old ideas boiled down to this one concept: all I can eat is cheese. But then he chose to try Hope’s apples and realized he could eat other things – which meant he had already chosen to change one of his beliefs! Not only that, but he was still the same person after adjusting his belief. That indicates we’re able to change our minds without changing ourselves. And this leads us to conclude there must be a separation between our beliefs and our selves; we’re not the same. Therefore, rather than our beliefs making us who we are, we’re the ones who pick our beliefs. You can picture yourself as being like a hook on which you can tie one belief or another onto it. Whichever ones you choose, the hook remains the same, independent of the belief. So we can change our views, Hem realizes, but to what? This is the question to which his thoughts lead him next.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #5: Being Open To Possibilities

While Hem scratched his head about the nature of the new belief he should embrace, Hope makes a suggestion: maybe they should try and escape from the maze? To Hem, that seems illogical. He has no conception of anything outside the maze; to him, the maze is the entire world. Everything he’s ever seen has been in the maze, and he can’t imagine something outside of it. Hearing Hem voice this, Hope makes another suggestion: what if he attempts to believe there’s something outside of the maze, even if he doesn’t know what it might be? And if Hem can decide what he believes, then what’s stopping him from also believing there’s something wonderful outside of the maze? This may seem like a somewhat large leap of faith, but it’s not far removed from the leap we have to take any time we change our ideas. To see why let’s rewind the story and return to the moment when Hem changed his thinking regarding food. How did he do that? How could he replace the idea that cheese was his only source of nourishment with the thought that he could also consume apples? The easy answer is that he tried out apples and found they were nourishing, but it just pushes the question back a step further: how and why did he try them? At this point, we arrive at a more profound answer: Hem took a leap of faith. He tried something new and untested before he had a reason to believe it would work. It was even before he knew what it was because he wasn’t familiar with the word or concept of “apple” until Hope introduced it to him. But underneath Hem’s leap of faith, there’s something even deeper: an openness to possibility. It's a notion that something new could work, coupled with a willingness to try it. Now, let’s apply this reasoning to real life. Imagine a woman who broke up with her partner. To find a new relationship, she has to attempt dating someone new; she needs to take a chance on another person. And to take that risk, she first must believe it exists – that it’s possible for a relationship to emerge from it. The same could be said regarding our careers, goals, and projects. We won’t ever know what’s possible until we try, but at the same time, we won’t try until we believe it’s attainable!

Out of the Maze Key Idea #6: Persisting in the face of Disappointment

Buoyed by this newfound belief in the power of believing in possibilities, Hem decides to find a way out of the maze. Until this point, he’s avoided all of the maze’s dark corners, which he’s been shying away from out of fear. But now he realizes that his fear and the resulting avoidant behavior stems from yet another view: the belief that the maze is dangerous. The belief that the maze is dangerous is a thought in his mind but, he recognizes that just because we have a viewpoint on something doesn’t mean we always have to believe it that way. We can choose to stop believing if we decide accordingly. And that’s exactly what Hem does after he considers his belief about the danger of the maze. He concludes it’s a position that’s been holding him back and preventing him from exploring new sections of the maze. Discarding his fear-generating belief, Hem grows more courageous and enters unknown territory. Eventually, he and Hope discover a corridor that leads to a door. They open it, and what do they find behind it? Paradise? Maybe a land of infinite cheese and apples? Nope, it’s simply a sterile, empty room. It's another chamber, similar to the ones they’ve seen many times before. At first, Hem feels disappointed and is about to turn around back towards the maze, but  Hope reminds him that things can be different than how they appear. Remembering his belief in the power of believing possibilities, he ventures into the room and explores its walls. Here, there’s an obvious lesson: don’t give up too quickly. To embrace the possibility of something, you have to fully explore it. It turns out, one of the walls has a crack. They squeeze through it and come out in a tunnel. At the end of that, they emerge into the outside world, where green meadows, blue skies, and warm sunshine await. And yes, this outside world is covered with ample cheese and apples. Plus, Hem finds his old friend Haw is there as well. So Hem and Haw are reunited and they all live happily ever after in their land of abundance. The story ends here but, there are still a couple of final lessons to be drawn from it.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #7: Finding New Sources of Happiness and Success

While rejoicing in his new reality, Hem had one last series of realizations that brought his journey full circle. He recollected that before he left Cheese Station C out of desperation to find new cheese, he wrote three facts down on paper, so he could remember them later. However, during the course of his journey, he found that none of these facts were true – that's to say, they weren’t facts at all! Instead, they were yet another example of beliefs that were holding him back. Hem’s first belief was that he had to locate more cheese, or else he would die. It’s true that he needed to find a new source of food, but it’s not accurate that the food had to be cheese. As he learned, he could also get nourishment from apples, and as he and Hope realized when they entered the outside world, there are likely many other items that can provide them with sources of nutrition. The same applies to the sources of our happiness and success, which the cheese and apples of the story represent. There are always other ways we can obtain fulfillment and we may not even be aware they exist yet. Hem’s second belief was that the maze was dangerous, with potentially hazardous things lurking in dark corners and blind alleys. But this proved to be false as well. In fact, it was only by exploring the unknown that Hem was able to find the route that led to his freedom. Thus, we could say that the situations we face are often not as scary as they seem and our paths to success and happiness are often the ones that appear the murkiest and full of the unknown. Hem’s third belief was that he was isolated in his quest and whether or not he could find food and survive was solely up to him. But he wasn’t alone. Hope was with him the entire time – literally, as in the character of Hope, and metaphorically, as this feeling. In our lives, we’re never alone either. Whether it's friends, family members, partners or colleagues, we always have companions on our journeys.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #8: The Sheer Power of Belief

Both the negative and positive powers of belief can be expressed with several examples that take place on a variety of levels of life. We’ll end with a look at a few of these instances. Let’s start with the historical level. Consider the Titanic: when it launched, people believed it to be unsinkable. As a result of this viewpoint, the ship wasn't equipped with enough lifeboats. When the supposedly unsinkable ship did end up sinking, more than 1,500 people lost their lives. Many people could have been saved if enough lifeboats had been available. Now let’s shift to the economic level. What do newspapers, bookstores,  film company Polaroid and the video rental company Blockbuster all have in common? At some point, they all believed their products were safe from the rivals that were starting to appear. These rivals being online news media,  bookstores, photo sharing platforms as well as digital cameras and video streaming. For a long time, they all made plans based on this position – one that reality showed to be false many times over in subsequent years. Perhaps these industries and companies could have gotten a head start and better secured themselves if they’d adjusted their beliefs sooner. Finally, let’s look at the personal level. The author provides an example of this. He passed away in 2017 from pancreatic cancer. However, instead of cursing the tumor that was killing him, he wrote a thank you letter to it instead. In this letter, he told the tumor how it made him more appreciative of his life and the family and friends who filled it. Not only did he seek out deeper connections with those already close to him, but he also reached out to people he’d fallen out of contact with for years. And when they came to visit him, he didn’t want to discuss his illness; he desired to focus the conversations on them and their emotions. While he didn’t deny the terrible nature of his cancer from a physical standpoint, he embraced the possibility it held from a personal view. This being the opportunity to forge more profound relationships with the people he loved and to savor the last days of his life with them.

Out of the Maze Key Idea #9: In Review

The key message in this book summary: It can be challenging to let go of old sources of happiness or success and the beliefs we develop about them, but it's possible to change those feelings and to find new sources of fulfillment. The solution is to cultivate an openness to possibilities, let go of fears and to join forces with other people in our life journey. Actionable advice: Examine your beliefs.
  • To do this, you can start by dividing your beliefs into two categories: Core beliefs and peripheral beliefs.
  • Your core beliefs are your values and guiding principles: the things you care about, want to see happen in the world and what provides you with a sense of purpose. They can range from strongly defending human rights or striving to alleviate others' suffering, to believing in yourself and the idea that your existence serves a  greater purpose. These beliefs don’t change, at least not in the short term because they’re at your core.
  • Around them, you acquire various other beliefs that are more flexible and temporary. Many of them have to do with the way you think you have to approach your core beliefs. These are the beliefs that are worth questioning and potentially changing. For example, someone who wanted to help other people might think being a doctor is the best way for them to achieve that but, upon further reflection, they could decide it’s by writing books, a realization that the author had.
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Happiness