Two Siblings, One Spotlight
It's hard enough for one person to make a mark. So what's the secret of families that produce multiple achievers within the same field? We asked four sets of siblings to muse about the conditions that led to their success
By Rebecca Webber published September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Siblings who do well in the same field are outliers, since most pursue separate paths to success. Finding a niche is a Darwinian adaptation, experts say, that harks back to a time when many children died in childhood. "Siblings differentiate themselves to compete for parental favor, which historically could impact survival," says Frank Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Born to Rebel.
So what explains the subset of sibs who compete in big brother's or sister's arena? There are lots of reasons to follow an older sibling into an activity in which he shines. (It's rarer for an older child to pick up a kid sibling's passion, probably because as the novice, he'd perform less well and suffer a blow to his self-esteem.) The little sibling shares half of the older one's genes, so may possess many of the built-in qualities that contribute to a brother's success, like high intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks. And, little sib was raised in the same environment, so she's probably learned similar values that could lead to success, like stick-to-it-iveness.
Further, a younger child's parents have already shown an interest in the chosen activity. "You don't give your kids opera lessons if you can't stand opera," says Laurie Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A younger kid can also benefit from the informal knowledge picked up from spending time with her sibling at home, or while being dragged along to tennis lessons, for example. And whether the siblings collaborate or compete during their formative years, the experience is likely to increase the skill level of both.
Once children leave the nest, sisters and brothers often turn into allies. Siblings may look for ways to use their shared talents to benefit each other and themselves, as they both compete in the world at large.
And yet, even when siblings stand side by side at the apex of their careers, the Darwinian impulse to differentiate flares up. Says Kramer: "Often, when from an outsider's perspective, it looks like siblings are doing the same thing, if you ask them about it, they will say, 'Oh, no, no, no. I'm a cardiologist who works in a clinic. My sibling is a cardiologist who does research.' They still see how they are dissimilar from each other."
SUSAN PINKER AND STEVEN PINKER: GREAT MINDS STUDYING THE MIND
Susan is a developmental psychologist and journalist whose book The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap received The William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2009. Steven, who holds an endowed chair in the department of psychology at Harvard, has been named to the Time 100 list for his influence in the field of language and cognition. Recognized as one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, his best-selling books include The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.
FROM THE MEMORY VAULT:
"Whenever Susan and I compare notes on our childhood memories, we contradict each other about the facts! A nice reminder to two psychologists on the unreliability and subjectivity of memory. My fondest memories are from when we were both adolescents. We were very close as teenagers, with many common friends, weekends spent hiking together or as a group, and the occasional crossover where her friend became my girlfriend or mine became her boyfriend." —Steven
"Steve is a research psychologist and I'm a clinical psychologist," Susan Pinker emphasizes. "It's true that we are under the broad umbrella of psychology, but if you compared our working lives over the past 25 years, they were really different until I started writing books. The end point is quite similar, but the journey to get there was quite different."
How did two siblings from Montreal become internationally influential psychologists? Their younger brother Rob, a high-ranking official in the Canadian government, is no slouch either. "We grew up in the same stew and were formed in the same stew. It's hard to pull it apart," says Susan. But they agreed to try.
"We picked our parents wisely," suggests Steven Pinker, whose newest book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The Pinker siblings were raised in the English-speaking community of Montreal. Their father was a businessman, their mother stayed home when the children were young and later became a high school counselor. Their strongest memories from childhood involve the vigorous discussion every evening around the dinner table. "There was a lot of debate over the issues of the day," recalls Susan. "We were encouraged to ask questions and not accept information at face value."
"My mother has a very probing sense of inquiry," Susan says. "My father has his own emotional intelligence. He taught us a different style of looking at ideas. He was the driving force behind our ability to devour all the intellectual material that we needed—books, articles, magazines."
"We know from studies of behavioral genetics that psychological traits are at least partly heritable," says Steven. "So from our parents we got some minimum of intelligence, conscientiousness, and openness to experience." A favorite memory involves a budget cross-country trip in a 1964 Chrysler Windsor sedan.
As kids, the Pinkers were expected to do well in school, but weren't hounded about it. "My mother was not the Amy Chua type, but she did insist that we work to our abilities," says Steven. And the children were exposed to the field of psychology very early on. Psychology Today was among the many periodicals delivered to their house.
The environment directly outside one's home can powerfully shape interests and spur on successes, too. In the Pinkers' case, Montreal, and McGill University in particular, was a hothouse for psychology and brain sciences. Their mother took classes there while they were teenagers, and a neighbor was a psychology professor. "He made a point of emphasizing the excellence of the department at McGill when we babysat his kids," says Steven.
When Steven headed off to college—to McGill, of course—he took a few psychology classes and decided to make it his major. When Susan went to McGill a few years later, she started down the same path. "I didn't really go into it because of Steven," she says. "It turns out we had similar intellectual interests, which is not that big of a surprise given we have the same genes and family background."
"I didn't think of it as her copying me," agrees Steven. "I thought she was pursuing her passions and using her strengths. Her training was originally in clinical psychology, which is something I'm completely ignorant about and incompetent in."
After college, while Steven was teaching at MIT, then Harvard, and researching and writing his books, Susan worked as a clinical child psychologist who also taught on the university level. "I never felt we were in competition," says Steven, even when Susan shifted toward journalism, which led to books, including The Sexual Paradox.
Susan is now working on a book about the science of social bonds. "We became even closer when she started writing about topics I also had an interest in," says Steven. "It continues to be collaborative. We send each other articles and links to pieces of interest, we sometimes comment on each other's writing, and when we're together we talk about areas of common interest."
"There's no point in rivalry," says Susan of her world-famous brother. "I see him as a role model. While he has a sparkling intelligence and creativity, he's also an incredibly hard worker, so I was never under any illusions over what it takes to really make an inroad into a new field...a lot of elbow grease!"
The Pinkers' advice to would-be parents of high-achieving kids? "Choose the other parent of your child carefully, so they can inherit the right genes. Then, make sure they are in a peer environment that values academic achievement and life success," says Steven. Susan suggests strong emotional support: "Make your children feel as if there is someone standing behind them."
GIL SHAHAM AND ORLI SHAHAM: ECHO CHAMBER MUSIC
Gil debuted as a solo violinist with Jerusalem Symphony at the age of 10 and is considered one of the most virtuosic classical musicians currently performing.
Orli, hailed as one of today's most gifted pianists, travels around the world appearing with major orchestras, just like her brother. The two have given recitals together approximately 100 times.
FROM THE MEMORY VAULT:
"When Gil was about 14 and I was 10, we used to come home from school and play great card games. We would play for hours and hours on end. We were in New York City at that time and it was often just the two of us after school. We would both have a cup of soup and creamed spinach for a snack. When we got older and more sophisticated, we'd order sushi and not tell our parents." —Orli
When Gil, Orli, and brother Shai were very young, their parents would celebrate the end of a long week in graduate school not by going out to dinner, but by buying a record—mostly classical music, with a little Beatles and John Denver mixed in. "We listened to them all the time," says Orli. "When you're playing music, the whole house hears it," adds Gil. "It does seem to be infectious."
Both parents became scientists, but music was their avocation. "Mom played piano and Dad, the violin," says Orli. "They gave us a huge enthusiasm for it." Shai started piano lessons when he was 5.
Gil, who is two years younger than Shai and five years older than Orli, says "I remember being jealous, and wanting to be different." So he set his sights on the violin. "I loved the way it looked, the strings, the mechanism. I thought it was a great toy," he recalls. His mother was reluctant—"She thought a kid learning the violin sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard," he says—but she ultimately gave in. The family was living in Israel then, where music had a high cultural value. It was thought to instill discipline and spur intellectual development in children. "I wanted to play both," says Orli, whose earliest memories are of Gil's violin getting closed up in a case she wasn't allowed to touch, and of Shai's piano, which was kept in the study. "When he wasn't on it, I could go up and play. I think that's why I chose the piano," she says.
When it came to making music, all three children shared a singular focus, practicing for long hours every day. They say they were mimicking the hard-working example of their parents, who both left for work every morning around 7 a.m. and returned home every night at 6:30 p.m. "There was a diligence that was very inspiring," says Gil.
"Our parents never really pushed us to practice, but they never suggested we go outside and play instead," says Orli. She and Gil often procrastinated on their assigned lessons, instead reading through sonatas together for fun. "He was older and had better technique," says Orli, "but because we were learning the pieces together, it was leveling."
A few years after the family moved to New York, Shai put his piano studies aside to focus on academics—he realized he hated performing. But Gil and Orli played on. It had become clear that Gil was exceptionally talented on the violin and his teachers were grooming him for a professional career. "Our dad got more involved in guiding him," says Orli. Meanwhile, at age 7, she became the youngest person ever accepted into Juilliard's precollege division at that time (most students enter around age 14). "My mom sat in on all my lessons and took notes," says Orli. She never felt rivalrous with Gil: "We were in separate parts of the musical world. Nobody made any comparisons and so I didn't either."
Still, their parents gently questioned their offspring's musical aspirations. "Even in my 20s, my mom would come to a concert and then say, 'Are you sure this is what you want to be doing with your life?'" says Gil. Because the answer was unequivocally "yes," they supported his dreams. Today, Gil and Orli both perform internationally as soloists, garnering stellar reviews and the highest awards (including a Grammy), while Shai heads the laboratory of developmental genetics at The Rockefeller University in New York.
"Being a classical musician is really on the fringe of society," says Gil. "Orli and I share the experience of going through life like that." They have to leave their own families behind to travel for concerts. Sometimes, they perform together, which their parents never wanted them to do until they had established themselves as soloists. "I think my dad didn't want us to become some sort of circus act," says Orli.
Gil says, "Making music with someone is a bonding experience. You have to be in tune with them on a split-second level." It's also the most time he gets to spend with Orli, who in his mind "is still a 4-year-old." Shai recently joined an amateur orchestra. "It's been very inspiring for me," says Gil, "because he does it for fun."
All the Shahams credit their success to the influence and support of their parents coupled with their own dedication to their careers. "I'm in the 10,000 hour camp," says Gil. "I think anyone can learn an instrument and make great music with a lot of work and effort. Those are the values we had in our house." Still, the interest in and talent for music they seemingly inherited from their parents surely helped propel them through those grueling hours of training.
Naturally, Gil's and Orli's kids are already taking music lessons. Says Orli: "Even at 18 months, my son would stop to listen to an orchestra. I see the passion in them and I don't want to deny it."
SOPHIE LITTLEFIELD AND MIKE WIECEK: TO THE BOOKSHELF BORN
Sophie is the author of best-selling crime, dystopian, and young adult novels. Her latest, A Bad Day for Scandal, was described by Library Journal as "more fun than eating cotton candy on a Ferris wheel."
Mike is the author of Exit Strategy, a finalist for Best Paperback from the International Thriller Writers. His short stories have earned accolades including a Shamus Award.
FROM THE MEMORY VAULT:
"Sophie and I—and some of the neighborhood kids—would sit and toss rocks into a nearby quarry. Extra bonus points accrued when a clonk echoed up from below, indicating we'd struck some abandoned piece of metal or machinery. Our childhood was complicated in many ways, and not always easy. But I remember the freedom of all that land behind the house, the freedom to run through it unsupervised and make up our own worlds, all by ourselves." —Mike
"We were very bookish growing up," says Sophie Littlefield. "We were all huge readers." Sophie, her older brother Mike Wiecek, and younger sister Kristen Wiecek rode their bikes to the local library in Columbia, Missouri, every Saturday. There, they passed around Encyclopedia Brown mysteries before Sophie branched off into Nancy Drew and Mike got obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy stories. Their parents didn't worry much about where they were, as long as they were home for dinner by five o'clock. "The atmosphere was very encouraging of all ventures literary, but beyond that, it was benevolent neglect. They didn't even know what we were doing," says Sophie.
Their dad, a law and history professor, typically had his own nose in a book when he wasn't in his basement office indexing information for his latest academic tome. Their mom was an artist. "I picked up on the notion that they valued academic achievement highly," says Mike. "And I had the standard first-child diligence and need to get A's." Sophie had a tougher time in school, following just one year behind her valedictorian brother, but still got decent grades. College was expected and a lucrative job gently encouraged. "I think my dad was a little frustrated by having to struggle to support his family as an academic. I remember him saying once it was just as easy to choose a career in which you can make a little money as not," says Sophie.
So despite his love of words, Mike majored in math at Brown University and went on to work in finance. Sophie studied computer science at Indiana University and got a job at Arthur Andersen. Kristen is a project manager in the tech industry. But after a few years working in jobs they didn't love, the elder two started looking for a way out. Sophie decided to stay home with her kids, and really wanted to make writing work as a career. "She started doing it with incredible determination and energy," Mike recalls. She sold magazine articles while she worked doggedly on her fiction. "I wrote nine novels over the course of a decade," she says. "It was the ninth one that sold."
Meanwhile, Mike followed her example and left his job at Fidelity Investments to be a stay-at-home dad. For intellectual stimulation, he wrote fiction while his daughter napped in the afternoon. He published short stories, and was encouraged when one of them won a Shamus Award (bestowed by the Private Eye Writers of America). His first novel didn't find a publisher, but his second was snapped up. With Exit Strategy, Mike beat his sister to the bookstore in 2005.
"People always ask us if we get jealous of each other," says Sophie. "I wonder if I am and am not aware of it. But Mike just signed a significant deal, and I'm so happy for him." He scored Dan Brown's agent, and will publish two new books under the pen name Mike Cooper.
"We're hopscotching in a sense," says Mike. While he was the first to sell a book, Sophie zoomed to success afterward. "She has 13 books in contract or published with major houses. It was an amazing ascent into the publishing firmament."
Besides their love of books, they also share an introverted nature and tenacity, which keeps them writing despite obstacles and setbacks. "Our stubbornness is our unifying quality," Sophie says, though she insists that, as writers, they're very different. "He's good at things that I'm bad at and I'm good at things that he's bad at. I turn to him for plot help. He'll say, 'this part is a little slow—you need to shoot someone,'" she says. "Her strengths are developing believable characters who interact naturally with one another," says Mike. "She'll say, 'I can't believe you wrote that, no one would ever really say that.'" They've talked about exploiting their relative strengths by coauthoring a book.
Sophie and Mike say they're grateful for their parents' hands-off approach, which allowed them to pursue their true passions as kids and learn how to fix their own mistakes. They're not sure how to re-create it in an era in which parents micromanage their children's lives.
Whether discussing a chapter's need for an exploding helicopter, or the biking privileges of an 11-year-old, the debate is always lively. Says Sophie: "We don't try to spare each other's feelings, because we're siblings."
SHIVANI GUPTA AND NEHA GUPTA: BUSINESS IN THEIR BLOOD
Eco-entrepreneurs Shivani and Neha run Sama Baby, a children's clothing company, and also launched Greenista, a website for fashion-conscious environmentalists.
FROM THE MEMORY VAULT:
"We used to hang out by the bayou and pick flowers after school. We would tie them together and make bracelets. My best recent memory with my sister is walking down a runway with her after one of our fashion shows. We felt proud!" —Neha
The Guptas' parents came to America from India in the 1970s with $20 in their pockets. Their plan was general, yet certain to succeed. They'd pinpoint a widespread need, and find a way to fill it.
They started with a video-rental business run out of their garage, eventually expanding to three locations in Houston. They sold their empire well before Netflix came along, and started a business that brought much-needed math and science teachers over from India.
Their daughters, now co-owners of several companies including a luxury organic children's clothing line, a green blog, and a boutique PR firm, soaked it all in. "We grew up at a dinner table where my parents spoke about business every single day," says 26-year-old Neha.
"They discussed issues they were having and how they were going to resolve them." Extended family members were also business owners, creating an environment of tip-sharing and mentorship even at family gatherings.
Because the Gupta parents were so busy with their stores, they didn't have time to hound their daughters about details. They simply set high expectations—good grades and good behavior—and the girls complied. "We knew they had to get their stuff done and we needed to get ours done," says Neha.
The girls helped out with the family businesses after school and during summers and holidays, acquiring a taste for running the show. "They taught me that you don't just have to have a 9-to-5 job, you can create something where you have 60 employees, where you make a difference in the community," says 30-year-old Shivani.
There was no parental pressure to become entrepreneurs, the Guptas insist. "They encouraged us to pursue any field in the world," says Shivani. But her mind was made up early. She studied entrepreneurship in college, while Neha studied economics. Both started their careers within larger companies—Shivani as a program coordinator for Canyon Ranch, and Neha working for Goldman Sachs, then Coach—before deciding to work for themselves.
Much like her parents, Shivani got started by ruminating over what people need now. In 2005, she launched Sama Wellness, a purveyor of organic goods from food to skin-care to cleaning products. But when the company struggled to grow, she quickly refocused it as Sama Baby. "We felt that organic cotton children's clothing would be the next big thing. We jumped into that," she says. Neha came on board to develop their products, which are currently sold in Whole Foods, children's boutiques, and online. Soon they branched out to start Greenista, an eco-conscious blog that currently has 10,000 subscribers.
Then, the sisters added a PR firm, DrivePR, to capitalize on their experience with branding using the latest social networking tools. In spite of the tough economic environment, they've gained a roster of clients who share their earth-friendly worldview, including one that invests in green technology such as solar panels and biodegradable tableware.
Their business sense is so similar, they often reach the same conclusion without even discussing it. After a recent call with a potential client, both walked away thinking: "I don't want to work with that person, it's not a fit for us," remembers Shivani. Other times after a meeting, "we'll have the exact same idea of how we want to go forward," she explains. But they divvy up the work according to their differing strengths. "I like to research and be perfect," says Shivani. "Neha likes to get the job done. It's a good partnership that way."
The sisters' bond was strengthened when their father was killed in a car accident in 2004. "It shook me to the core that life is short. We don't want to go to bed angry with each other," says Neha.
And though they've embraced entrepreneurship, there are aspects of their parents' lifestyle they've eschewed. "We watched our parents work way too hard," says Neha. "They sacrificed a lot to make sure our lives were very fortunate."
They strive for a better work-life balance, but still expect to pass along the tradition of Gupta entrepreneurship to the next generation. "My sister's baby is only 11 months old, she's barely eating food, and we're obsessed with her," says Neha. "What do we want her to be? We want exactly what our parents wanted for us: for her to find her passion and follow it no matter what it is."