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How Firstborns and Secondborns Compare

First-born and second-born children do indeed see the world differently.

People have long been fascinated with birth order and how it shapes our lives. If Abel weren’t the younger brother, would Cain still have jealously murdered him? Is Alec the most successful Baldwin because he is the eldest? What role did birth order play in the destinies of the Kennedys, the Bushes, or the brothers Clinton?

There are countless books on the subject, though the claims they make are not always based on objective evidence. But thanks to recent research conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands, we now know that first- and secondborns do indeed see the world differently in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success.

We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mindsets: what I call the Be-Good mindset, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and that you already know what you’re doing, and the Get-Better mindset, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills. You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to get smarter.

When we have a Be-Good mindset, we are constantly comparing our performance to other people, to see how we “size up.” A Get-Better mindset, on the other hand, leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress—how well am I doing today, compared with how I did yesterday, last month, or last year?

In a study of over three hundred undergraduates (sets of siblings), the researchers found that firstborn siblings were significantly more likely to have Get-Better goals and use self-referenced standards, than secondborns. Secondborns, in contrast, were more likely to pursue Be-Good goals and compare their own performance to that of others. (Incidentally, these differences emerged whether the siblings were describing themselves, or one another other.)

Why do first- and secondborns end up with different mindsets? At least in part, it’s because when they are young, firstborns generally don’t have anyone to compare themselves to—and neither do their parents. When little Alec starts crawling, speaking, and walking, he hears things like “Wow, two weeks ago he could only sit up and now look at him go!” “Last month he seemed to only say a few words and now he never stops talking!” The focus of attention is on individual progress, with only your own past behavior as a reference—this naturally leads to more Get-Better thinking.

Younger siblings, on the other hand, have someone to compare themselves to from the very beginning. So little Daniel is more likely to hear “He spoke sooner than Alec did,” or “He’s not crawling as quickly as Alec, is he?” It’s quite natural for parents (and children) to make these comparisons, but their unintended consequence is the potential for much more Be-Good thinking.

The problem with Be-Good goals is while they are very motivating, they tend to backfire when things get hard. We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. And if you think you don’t have what it takes to succeed, you give up on yourself way too soon and never reach your full potential.

Get-Better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Now, of course there will be plenty of firstborns with a Be-Good mindset who feel they need to be better than everyone else (think Cain), and plenty of secondborns with a Get-Better mindset who aren’t obsessed with comparison (Prince Harry seems to be more of a march-to-your-own-drummer type). But if you are a secondborn who suspects you’ve been a victim of too much Be-Good thinking, don’t despair! You can retrain your brain and shift your mindset with patience and practice.

How can you reframe your goals in terms of Getting Better? Here are the three steps:

Step 1: Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.

Step 2: Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble. Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable—in fact, the opposite is true. Only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.

Step 3: Try not to compare yourself to other people—instead, deliberately compare your performance today to your performance yesterday. Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier in 2012, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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