What do Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs have in common? Well, besides being billionaire moguls, they share something that goes back, way back: their birth order. Winfrey, Bezos and Jobs were all born the oldest of their siblings, which begs the question, is this where potential begins? How does birth order impact career success? We spoke with psychotherapist and leadership coach Sarah Greenberg, who focuses on mental health and wellbeing related to work, to understand birth order theory—and find out whether it holds any water.
First, what’s birth order theory?
The idea that the order in which we’re born into a family affects our individual personalities has both scholarly and colloquial roots. In everyday life, birth order is an alluring way to explain the behavior of an attention-seeking friend (middle-child syndrome much?), an entitled little sister (she’s the baby of family—of course she needs a window seat), or a spread-too-thin aunt (as the oldest child, she thinks she has to take care of everyone and everything!).
But experts have also been compelled by the nature vs. nurture of it all. The founder of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, believed first-born children developed certain traits. The enticing idea has led to several studies over the 20th century looking at if, how and why birth order impacts personality.
And into the 21st century, birth order theory remains captivating. Says Greenberg: “There’s an interesting 2017 study out of Sweden that found first-born children are more likely to be managers, and later-born children are more likely to be entrepreneurs.” (Hmmm, but how does that explain Oprah, Jeff and Steve?) Greenberg remains a curious skeptic of the whole idea. “Another study,” she explains, “found that first-borns tend to have a higher IQ, which played well in the media and got a lot of shares from first-borns, but the truth is the difference found was small, and not enough to make a meaningful impact on someone’s career.”
What are common stereotypes of birth order traits?
Taking the theory with a grain of salt, here are some commonly held birth order stereotypes that have been reinforced again and again by pop culture and media.
- Higher ego
- Higher IQ
- Fairness focused
- Social butterfly
- People pleasers
- Alternative thinkers
- Socially awkward
- Merged personalities
Is there truth to birth order theory and how it impacts career success?
“I think the evidence just isn’t there to make sweeping generalizations about the impact of birth order on career success,” Greenberg shares. There’s also a lot of variation in how someone experiences their place in the sibling constellation. An oldest child with two younger siblings all born within five years of each other will have a very different experience than an oldest child with two siblings born ten years later. A younger sibling with reliable caregivers is going to have a very different experience than a younger sibling who finds themselves taking on typically adult worries and responsibilities from a young age, illustrates Greenberg.
Corinna Hartmann and Sara Goudarzi make a really great point in a piece for Scientific American on the potentially misleading data of studies that enforce the impact of birth order:
In such studies, researchers must be particularly cautious because, in addition to age, the size of one’s family is another factor that’s intertwined with sibling position. A child from a family of four has a 50 percent chance of being a firstborn; the more siblings, the lower the probability. For example, the fact that many astronauts are firstborns does not necessarily speak to the special qualities of those born first. It’s likely that many astronauts come from smaller families.
So, should we throw everything about birth order and career out the window?
Not quite. Greenberg still sees merit in birth order and career success. “Curiosity about birth order touches on a deeper truth: None of us are blank slates. We are shaped by a lifetime of experiences, consciously and unconsciously, and we carry this with us to the workplace.” In fact, the psychotherapist agrees that the family we grow up in—from the pre-natal environment, to early relationships with our caregivers, to where our family lives, to who are siblings are—shapes who we are and who we become. “Birth order makes a difference, but it is only one factor of our family experience and our life experience. The way birth order impacts career, according to research, pales in comparison to other factors like gender, or what zip code we were born in.”
So, yeah, when Greenberg works with a client in therapy or coaching, she still asks about birth order. “I’m more interested in their history as a whole. What role did they play in their family system, and how are they recreating these patterns at work, for better or worse?” Greenberg compares it to Myers-Briggs tests, which, though widely used, are not considered scientifically rigorous. When someone’s experience aligns well with birth order theory (or Myers-Briggs), it’s a powerful lens that help us understand why we are the way we are. Still, she reiterates, “It’s important not to cling too tightly to our notions of birth order, because the evidence is clear that it just doesn’t fit for everyone in a consistent way. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful.”
Does self-fulfilling prophecy play into birth order and career success?
“Absolutely!” says Greenberg. If we categorize ourselves as leadership-oriented first-borns or entrepreneurial last-borns, it impacts how we see ourselves and how we play into those perceived traits. There’s also the Pygmalion Effect, where expectations from others—like caregivers and teachers—impact what we achieve. If you have a parent in your life who thinks you’re going to be the president, that could drastically impact your self-confidence compared to a child whose family doesn’t think they’re college-bound.
But remember, warns Greenberg: “None of this is written in stone. Any of us can rewrite our stories and anytime.”
How can a person use what they've learned growing up to find success in the workplace?
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; it’s not just based on birth order traits. Greenberg suggests doing a “strength inventory” to understand what you’re really good at and lean into instead of wasting energy trying to shift weaknesses around.
Here’s how to do it: Start with strengths related your career, but also go back to the strengths you showed in your family. A prototypical eldest child will have some leadership skills. A prototypical youngest child will know how to march to the beat of their own drum. A prototypical middle child will be a great peacemaker. Identify the strengths you showed even as youth in your family and use them when you’re serving tables, managing a team or preparing a presentation. Says Greenberg, “These strengths may feel so natural to you that you dismiss them. Don’t. These are valuable tools in your career toolbox.”
What are signs you're falling into birth order patterns in the workplace that you learned growing up?
If they’re positive patterns, you probably won’t notice them much. In fact, you’ll probably feel in your element, Greenberg explains. But when those patterns are not working in your favor, she says, you might notice yourself self-sabotaging, fearful or out of sorts.
Here’s a case study from Greenberg’s practice (names and details changed for privacy):
Martha was the middle child of three siblings. Her older sister was always described as a “natural born leader,” and though Martha sometimes longed for more space, she loved her sister, and happily deferred to her. At work, Martha despaired that all these newer hires kept getting promoted while she stayed in the same role. Even more, she kept advocating for them to climb the ladder, as she longed for a promotion herself.
“See the pattern she was acting out?” asks Greenberg. “The good news is that it’s possible to break out of the old identities that no longer serve. It can take deep work, but most find it worthwhile and freeing.”
And that’s just what Martha did when she finally started advocating for herself, seeing herself as a leader and got her promotion.
So where does that leave Oprah, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs?
Taking what we know about birth order theory, there’s definitely a chance that being first-born children had an impact on these billionaires’ career successes. Perhaps it lit the fire under their seats in the first place. But we also know that these icons had wildly different upbringings, families, experiences and strengths that would color their paths from birth to mogul status. Like Greenberg says, nothing is set in stone—we can rewrite our stories any time.