One of the jokes that people have of me is that I am a Swiss army knife. This is not a particularly unusual joke, in that throughout my entire life I have been recognized for the sheer immense scope of my skills and interests. At work, of course, I am mostly a data analyst, pulling reports and providing them for internal and external customers, designing reports, and working on data exploration with others. However, at times, such as the last couple of days at work, I have had to step in for some of my coworkers who help manage the call queues, which alternates between fairly relaxing and very stressful, depending on the state of the queues. Being known for versatility has its advantages, in that it makes one particularly valued and appreciated, but it must be handled wisely because there is always the risk of being a jack of all trades and a master of none, too scattered in one’s approach to be truly great at any one thing.
As is the case for many boys (and girls), when I was young I was fond of collecting Swiss army knives. Although I did not have any cause to use many of the tools included in them, there were quite a few that were of use. Between clipping nails and using scissors and enjoying a bottle opener, probably in expectation of victories over armies of wine-growing neighbors of the Swiss in defensive wars, there were quite a few tools that were of use, even if one did not have many reasons to use a knife in one’s ordinary life. Far less famous, of course, is the French Army Knife, largely because the French army was not known for its versatility, but rather for a few periods of military strength that made them the enemy of their European neighbors and for periods of immense weakness where they fell prey to such enemies as the Vikings, the English, and the Germans while being torn apart with internal division.
The Swiss, for much of their history, were melancholy mercenaries in the armies of others or neutrals surrounded by larger and more powerful states . Their army, which consists of some jet fighters, some strategically located artillery, and a well-trained body of citizen militia, was known to stand up to German militarism in the 20th century by claiming that in the face of larger German armies attacking them that they would shoot twice and go home . The Swiss army knife, with its immense versatility and practicality, is a testament to the Swiss tradition of being armatissimi e liberissimi, in the words of Machiavelli, no mean judge of the capabilities of others, for the Swiss needed to be armed and free to survive among neighbors like the Italians, French, Germans, and Austrians, all of whom were imperial neighbors to the landlocked Swiss. On the contrary, most of their neighbors have lacked the strong unity in defense of their homeland at key times throughout history. The French shamefully divided against themselves under German occupation, for example, and the Italians went from blustering bullies to people under the jackboot with a puppet government after trying to betray Germany secretly upon the invasion of their homeland, to give but two of many examples. Yet the Swiss have remained free since their experience under Napoleonic rule, which led to the establishment of some French-speaking cantons like Vaud which had previously been under Bernise rule, and aside from a short war in 1848 that led to a stronger central government, and a brief and accidental invasion of a smaller neighbor , the Swiss have remained at peace, however tensely, for more than two centuries. Few nations can claim to be both strong and peaceful for anything approaching that length.
Therefore, when we appreciate the Swiss, or when we call others a Swiss army knife because of their versatility, let us note some of the reasons why this flexibility exists. Throughout their history the Swiss have been a small nation surrounded by larger nations, poor in natural resources, possessed of a rugged mountain fastness and many greedy and far wealthier neighbors. It was Swiss vulnerability that led to its flexibility, which was a result of need rather than greed. For most of their history they depended on the remittances of mercenaries and other exiles who traveled to other lands in search of a good living and the hope of returning home after decades of labor. The Swiss were versatile because of their vulnerability, and so it is with many people who are similarly versatile today. Instead of feeling jealous at those who are able to do a lot, and who are able to cover for the niches and gaps present in their surroundings, we might do well to feel a sense of pity that it was found necessary to spread oneself so thin, and to attempt so much out of absolute necessity.
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