If you want to understand personality and career choice, you may have considered birth order. Classic psychology suggested the order of your birth within your family (born first, born in the middle, born last) made a difference in your behavior and approach. First-borns were supposedly smarter and more responsible, while middles were peacemakers, and youngest children were fun-loving.
But birth order may not matter—and it may not be the guide to character, career, or your future that it’s been made out to be. But if it’s not about birth order, how should you understand your personality or guide your career? There are great ways to consider these, but first a bit more on birth order.
Birth order has been an accepted part of psychology since the mid-1900s, and in research as late as the 1990s and early 2000s, it was still part of popular belief that it impacted why people act in certain ways and what motivates their behaviors. The theory was based on how parents interact differently with children based on when they’re born.
For example, if oldest children are asked to care for their siblings more frequently, they develop greater responsibility. Research also seemed to show firstborns were more likely to be conscientious, structured, cautious, and high achieving. Further, if middle children get between others in family conflicts, they develop skills in helping others to compromise. And middle children were supposed to be more people-pleasing, diplomatic, and have larger social circles. Finally, if the youngest children benefited from parents who were more relaxed, they would develop easy-going personalities. Youngest children were known for being outgoing and uncomplicated.
Going beyond personality, there were even studies (one by Ohio State University and another study baked by Disney) on the career choices based on personality. Oldest children were more likely to be rock stars, astronauts, scientists, or engineers. Some careers middle children were predicted to fall into were politician, chief executive, or author. And youngest children were more likely to be composers or explorers. What about only children? They were like oldest children, but even stronger in terms of discipline and leadership—and they were more likely to be artists than other children.
Factors outside of birth order
But while birth order might be fun to consider (and to lord over your siblings), it’s not as sound as people once thought. In fact, the European Journal of Personality published a study which found only minuscule differences between people, personalities, and careers based on when they were born. And a study of 377,000 people by the University of Illinois found little correlation between birth order and personality.
So, if birth order isn’t a guide for your character or your career choices, where should you turn? There are some great alternatives.
Assess your interests
When you’re considering where you should go with your career and making decisions about which path to pursue—whether to take the promotion, take a certain job, or whether the next opportunity is the right one—reflect on your interests. When you’re curious and intrigued by what you’re doing, you’ll invest more time, feel more motivated, and you’ll naturally develop skills in these areas. Your passion and your interests will energize you and get the attention of those around you—in a good way—setting up a positive loop of doing great work, getting rewarded for it, and upping your game even more.
There are tools which have high levels of statistical validity to measure your interests as well, focusing on types of interests which are realistic (working with your hands), investigative or scientific, artistic, social, enterprising (working in some way with entrepreneurship), and conventional or data-forward. You can also make your own lists of what interests you. Prioritize what you love to do and identify which kinds of tasks and responsibilities give you the most energy and motivate you to invest your efforts.
Put effort into your future
Another way to consider what you should do is to give thought to where you want to develop, what’s next, and how you want to live your life going forward. Imagine how you want to spend your time and in what areas you’d like to build your capabilities. Create a mind map of your goals or create a vision board which captures the future you wish to accomplish. These will focus you on where you want to go and inspire your investment toward what’s next.
One caution in this area is to listen to your own inner guidance. You may receive feedback during a performance review or from teammates that you’re a ninja at project management, but what really energizes you is artistic pursuits. Or perhaps you can run circles around a spreadsheet, but where you really want to develop is in your foreign language skills. Take positive feedback and appreciate your strengths, but don’t be limited by where you are today. Be sure you’re embracing your own ideals for a future which may be different from where you’re performing presently.
Find your people
Another way to assess your desired career is to pay attention to where your people are. People tend to self-select to professions based on personality, and you’re often most fulfilled when you’re working with colleagues who share your passions and interests. Of course, you want to learn from people who have different perspectives and experiences. But when you sense a fit with others and when you feel like you speak the same language and can anticipate each other’s thoughts, these can be signals of an area which is aligned with your own passions and interests.
Form your beliefs around lived experiences
Of course, you can also ignore the research on birth order and embrace characteristics you believe you possess. Perhaps you’re an oldest child and you’ve always thought of yourself as a great leader. Or maybe you’re a middle child and you love the idea of being good at diplomacy, relationships, and compromise. Further, perhaps you’ve always thought of yourself as fun to be around, and being a youngest child makes sense of this attribute.
In these cases, embrace who you are and what you’re good at. Having a strong self-esteem and a high level of confidence is good for your development. If you think you have a particular attribute or you’re especially proud of a certain strength, these can give you confidence to develop them even further—and it may not matter whether they stem from birth order.
Overall, it works best to reflect on who you are and what you want to do. From there, be intentional about your choices so you can take steps to develop and contribute. When you feel like you’re doing great work that is aligned with what you love, you’ll reach the best levels of fulfillment—no matter what your birth order.
Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.