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  • Writer's picturePeter Yawitz

Should I be a Swiss Army Knife or Japanese Cleaver?

Dear Someone Else’s Dad,

My friends and I have been arguing about whether it makes sense to be a Swiss Army Knife—having many skills without having complete mastery of any-- or to be a fine-edged paring knife and an heavy-duty cleaver—having mastery in a couple of areas.  Sorry for the weird metaphors.

The pro-Swiss Army Knife friends say it’s better to be well-rounded so you can feel comfortable switching careers because at least one of your many skills will come in handy. The paring knife and cleaver group think it’s better to hone two or three skills to perfection so that you can truly develop a level of expertise, which can lead to greater success. What does Someone Else’s Dad recommend?


8" Stainless Damascus Chef's Knife by Zwilling J.A. Henckels

Dear Eight Inches,

My Swiss Army Knife (or Knives, actually, because I got many of them as gifts since I was about 13) was one of my all-time favorite toys. I loved how the inventors thought of putting a nail file in there since you never know when you’ll be hiking the Appalachian Trail and need a mani touch-up. My deluxe model with the slide-out toothpick was total hygiene handiness ingenuity. If they’d put a toothbrush in too I might have considered actually camping.

My all-time favorite tool, however, was the mini-scissors, though to be honest I always found it more fun to pretend to use them than to find some actual paper to cut.  Even if I were caught in the wilderness and had an urge to shred some documents that I’d brought along, I think I would prefer to at least use nail scissors, or even my teeth and bare hands.

So back to your question. In the early stages of your career, I recommend that you be that deluxe Swiss Army Knife and try the nail file, scissors, corkscrew, mini blade, can opener, and toothpick all on for size. See which ones you like more than others and in different locations and different cultures if possible.  At some point though, I hope you’ll find that while the toothpick and nail file are decent tools, you’d be a better asset if you were a winning can opener and corkscrew with decent nail filing abilities.

I do want to point out that our weird metaphors are all about technical skills. No one can expect to have the expertise to be a wastewater engineer, neurosurgeon, federal judge and professional body painter at the same time.  But you should master multiple behavioral skills- e.g., organizational, listening, writing, delegating—no matter what career you end up in. Imagine a Swiss Army Knife with those attributes. Gift idea?

Good luck, SED

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