Is Bill Clinton Bill Clinton because, as his mother’s eldest child, he got more attention, had stricter rules and had higher expectations placed on him?
Is Jim Carrey Jim Carrey because, as the youngest of four kids, he had to resort to funny faces and fart jokes to get any attention from his family?
As the daughter of a psychologist, I guess it is unavoidable that I am interested in theories of human behavior. I’ve always been fascinated by the research by Frank Sulloway and others on birth order and personality, especially as it relates to creativity.
I first came across Sulloway’s work at a personal crossroads, as I was diverting from my initial, science-related path in life (I started college in a pre-med track – intending to be a large animal veterinarian) and committing instead to a more creative profession as a writer and filmmaker. As a first-born who became the “creative one” in my family, I took note when I read in his work that eldest children tend to be more conservative and traditional in their personalities, aligning more with their parents’ views than later, more rebellious younger siblings.
Ever since Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, called firstborns “power-hungry conservatives,” middleborns “competitive” and youngest children “spoiled and lazy,” there have been varied theories as to the influence of birth order on personality. Very generally, firstborns (which includes onlies) are found to be more responsible, organized, assertive and academically-successful than laterborns. (Note to my younger brother: I did not make this up, I am just repeating it!) And laterborns apparently tend to be more agreeable, adventurous, sociable and unconventional.
Scientists think this is because firstborns identify more with their parents, being the only ones who get their full attention, and later may step into quasi-parental roles in caring for younger siblings. Laterborns may need to experiment with new strategies to distinguish themselves from their older siblings, and are more likely to reject the status-quo.
So how does this affect creativity? Anyone from anyplace in the birth order can succeed in their creative pursuits – but firstborns might tend take a more intellectual approach to creativity, while laterborns, with their predisposition towards non-conformism, might be more ‘outside the box’ thinkers.
Radical thinkers Darwin, Voltaire, Ralph Nader, Harriet Tubman – and Steve Martin! – were later-born siblings. As a firstborn I see this and feel a little defensive. Am I not creative enough? Do I outline too thoroughly before writing? Should I just Jackson Pollock (the youngest of five!) myself into my work more? But then I see that radical innovators Einstein, Freud, Galileo, Newton – and Oprah! – were fellow firstborns, and I feel a little better.
I decided to conduct my own, completely unscientific poll to see how the lovely and creative folks here at The Glue stacked up in the birth order/creativity department.
Our Art Director is a firstborn and our Chief UX Storyteller is an only. Go Team Power-Hungry Firstborns!
But then, I found out that our Creative Director – perhaps the creative-est of us all, I mean it’s right there in her title! – is a middle child.
Damn it all.