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Why Being Firstborn is a Blessing and a Curse

July 10, 2022 | by Ari Blaff

My struggle to find and embrace who I really am.

Being the eldest is a blessing. We’re constantly reminded by our parents, history, and even researchers that it’s a privilege to be a firstborn.

But what happens when the superiority complex instilled at birth runs aground against the unforgiving shores of reality?

That’s what I’m learning now, the hard way. Since I was young, I looked at the world and thought what it owed me. Whether it would come from being a blue checkmarked journalist, or prestigious business school grad, or the best athlete in my family, I agonized over how to differentiate myself from my brothers; how to measure myself relentlessly against them in hopes that my success would bring happiness and respect.

Even worse, it was less about the process, the journey, and more about the end results. So be it if I hated business school: as long as I got a diploma and got a great paying banking job, it would all sort itself out. My parents and grandparents could beam over another dean’s list even if the work drove me to see a therapist.

Just one more accomplishment, and I’ll finally be happy.

Me and my brothers

Old habits die hard. Coming back from a months-long whirlwind trip that brought me from the frostbitten landscapes of Scandinavia to Portuguese coastal towns and the Rocky Mountains, I felt on top of the world. Returning to normal life, back in grey springtime Toronto, I’d somehow forgotten that I was still a struggling freelancer losing pace with my cohort. While they were busy buying condos and getting engaged, I was caught in the quicksand of twenty-somethingdom, spending most my hours working and sleeping in my same childhood room.

The circadian rhythm of life quickly killed off any lingering afterglow of wanderlust. I was back to square one while my younger brothers had begun to carve out little slices of lives for themselves.

How could this be happening? I’m the oldest son; I should be the one moving out, making good money, and be the pride of my grandparents.

One finished grad school and moved out; the other works in finance and sports a far healthier balance sheet than myself. The sudden reversal of our fortunes left me reeling.

I began to second-guess myself and the career choices I made. The 9-5 banking gig didn’t look so bad anymore.

I had a series of panic attacks. Racing thoughts filled my mind with images of squandered time and overindulgence. How could this be happening? I’m the oldest son; I should be the one moving out, making good money, and be the pride of my grandparents. I feared I had taken the wrong path and even began to begrudge their success. The “oldest child syndrome” – when the eldest defends their prized status from younger siblings and compete for parental attention and care – was kicking in.

Cain and Abel and I

There’s another person whose story echoes mine: Cain. He is the older brother, “the golden child,” as Rabbi Ari Kahn writes, and the tension between Cain and Abel “sets the stage for the rest of the Book of Genesis, where the younger brother consistently achieves superiority over the older brother who inevitably fails.”

The three of us

Throughout every turn, Cain feels slighted by God. His offering goes unacknowledged while Abel’s is respected. Everything Cain does, his entire existence, is anchored by comparing himself with Abel always finding “himself on the short end of the stick,” Rabbi Kahn writes.

Cain isn’t all that different than those of us today who base their entire self-worth through constant social comparison. Rather than look inward to find joy and happiness, we look outside – usually to those nearest us – to find our meaning and humanity, viewing life as a zero-sum game for dignity where another’s success is your loss.

No wonder Cain becomes bitter, angry and depressed when he sees he hasn’t been as successful as his brother, Abel. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Social scientists have demonstrated this. Someone who fixates on being creative will likely be less creative; so, too, will someone striving for meaning and happiness likely find themselves groping into the abyss. “Social comparison, fear of failure, and perfectionism are like Dante’s prideful sea of ice, freezing you in place with thoughts of what others will think of you—or, worse, what you will think of yourself—if you do not succeed at something. These are the fruits of success addiction,” Arthur Brooks writes in his latest book, From Strength to Strength.

Constantly checking your status, prestige, and wealth, corrodes one’s humanity and becomes a soul-decaying pursuit that ultimately thwarts the love and respect one genuinely deserves.

The Talmud puts it this way: “One who runs away from honor will find honor chasing after him. One who chases after honor will find honor running away from him.”

Constantly checking your status, prestige, and wealth, corrodes one’s humanity and becomes a soul-decaying pursuit that ultimately thwarts the love and respect one genuinely deserves.

Summarizing Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s thoughts, Rabbi Kahn writes “The challenge of life is to find our uniqueness and develop it, not to define ourselves in comparison with others, but to search within ourselves and find our uniqueness, our image of God.”

By finding, and embracing, who we are – whether that’s the poor freelancer, the kindergarten teacher, or the investment banker – we gain an appreciation for others. Self-understanding paves the way for us to steer clear of envy, jealousy, and greed and, ultimately, for us to be capable of being our brother’s keeper, regardless the firstborn status.

Extra Notes

What else could someone wish for? It’s as if Moses (cough: a lowly second son!) parted the waters for us firstborns to go out into the world and thrive.

Academic papers abound touting the excellence of the oldest child. A famous 2017 Swedish study found firstborns to be “more emotionally stable, persistent, socially outgoing, willing to assume responsibility, and able to take initiative than later-borns.” Unsurprisingly, the trio of academics found that such predispositions influenced the success of children later in life. Eldests in their sample were found to be disproportionately in C-suite jobs compared to their lowly “laterborns.”

This likely stems from the reality of parenting and limited time. Eldests get the most undivided parental attention which cascades over into greater socialization and life skills. Parental time and care rapidly dwindles when there are more troublemakers in the house. Research from the Journal of Human Resources demonstrates that firstborns perform higher than their siblings on cognitive tests in infancy and are thus better positioned for academic and career success. Or, as CNBC titled the revelation: “Oldest children are the smartest, research shows” (likely written by a true firstborn!).

The social expectation that eldest’s have the world before their feet is instilled at birth and, is so strong, some researchers have hypothesized that the trappings of elderhood are so valuable that firstborns seek to defend their status to keep their position. In truth, the academic findings remain contested. For every one lauding eldests, there’s another saying birth order carries little weight.

Regardless of the tit-for-tat battle among scholars, what is important is the social norm that there are dizzying expectations on eldest children. Both parental and cultural pressures shape the unique sense that firstborns feel and contributes towards “a conscientious desire to overachieve.”


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