Compliments of Axel Buhrmann via Flickr

 Pursuing things independently of others’ approval is the essence of entrepreneurial spirit (Adizes, 1979, p. 87). 

How often do we find ourselves doing things against our own desires, or sometimes even contrary to our own best interests? “Energetic prostitution” [Christel’s 6 point energy assessment for 2010] is a form of self-denial in which we engage in activities so that we may appear more “pleasing” to other people. Zukav and Francis (2001) coined the term “pleasers” for persons whose mindset is formed from hearing others’ opinions. Their intense desire to please is created by psychological dependence on others’ approval, a desire for their friendship, and the need to be liked. Effective time management suggests however that life is a balance, and that to be truly happy we need to please ourselves first. What we need then  is to regularly schedule pockets of time to refresh our spirits. 

In his research, Dr. Kevin Leman (a noted birth order expert) has found that some birth orders may be more susceptible to volunteering than others. Although he has advice and information regarding all of the positions within the family tree (only, oldest, middle, and last born), he has emphasized the high level of expectations placed upon first borns and onlies by their parents. 

First borns:  Dr. Leman has devoted an entire book to first borns, entitled “Growing up first born: The Pressure and Privilege of Being Number One.” He suggests that first borns are expected to be “the smartest, the best-behaved, the best-looking, the most conscientious, the strongest…” (Leman, 1989, p. 23). As a result, they become the family standard bearers and the “mini-adult” around the house who helps raise the younger siblings. Leman (1989) notes that as a consequence of parental anxiousness and inexperience the oldest (and in particular the only) may be pushed to high levels of achievement: as of his writing, more than 52 percent of U.S. presidents were first born.  

First Born Characteristics: first born traits can be a double edged sword. Some of these are perfectionism, organization, list making, and willingness to lead. In my own experience I have noticed that the students who have color coded notes, follow all the rules within class, and who frequently compare their grades with those around them are almost always a first born. I have also noticed that they tend to LOVE organizing and purchasing office supply products that facilitate compartmentalization. Leman suggests that because of their “special” relationship with their parents, first borns (and particularly onlies) are treated like little adults who have the propensity to be natural leaders within a group, and who want to do things themselves for fear of others “messing up” “their” project. An example I found both interesting and tragic was his portrayal of Leonardo Davinci, the virtuoso among artists who made this statement: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have” (Leman, 1989, p. 26). Perfectionism has been considered a type of slow suicide, in which the perfectionist is never pleased with his/her efforts, and often feels discouraged as a result. This type of thinking is also known as “all or nothing,” in which one feels like a failure unless he/she achieves perfection on each and every undertaking. 

 Below are some first born axioms (Leman, 1989, p. 30): 

 Everyone depends on me  

 I can’t get away with anything  

 I was never allowed to be a child  

 If I don’t do it, it won’t get done right.  

Only Characteristics: Leman (1989) argues that for every adjective that applies to first borns, you can put the descriptor “super” in front of it to describe the only son/daughter: in other words, “super conscientious,” “super reliable,” and “super dependable.” The following is an excerpt from a singles ad which may well have been written by an only (from Leman, 1984, p. 60): 

Christian, blond, blue eyes, 5’2”, 100 lbs. prof., cauc/female, no depend., wishes to meet Protestant Cristian, prof. man in 30s with college degree who has compassion for animals and people, loves nature, exercise and physical fitness (no team sports), music and dance, church and home life. Desire nonsmoker/nondrinker slender, 5/7”-6’, lots of head hair, no chest hair, intelligent, honest and trustworthy, sense of humor, excellent communicator of feelings…..[and the list goes on…].   

Check out a list of famous people by birth order. Some famous onlies listed are Jack Welch, Tiger Woods, Alan Greenspan and Maria Sharapova. 

Leman (1984) suggests that onlies tend to schedule far too many activities on their plate, and a result end up feeling frustrated and exhausted. Some tips that he provides for onlies are to socialize with people ten years older or ten years younger, because these individuals will be the most gracious and the least combative.  Also, they should be ruthless with regard to time management and in making time for themselves. 

Both first borns and onlies are expected at an early age to set the example, to act like young adults, and in some cases to function as surrogate parents. Those first out of the chute are conditioned to please Mom and Dad, a tendency that has spillover effects to future bosses, self-centered spouses, exploitative colleagues. 

We become fodder for other’s narcissism when we are unaccustomed to saying no. Sarah Ban Breathnach mentions a woman who felt that she was finally able to resign some committee assignments (and slow her frenzied lifestyle) when she was diagnosed with cancer. Our “niceness,” our unwillingness to disappoint, sometimes has tragic consequences. I once heard Oprah say “You’re not nice; get over it.” Saying no to other people is a way to say yes to life, and to activities that are primary to our own personal agenda. 



Adizes, I.  (1979).  How to solve the mismanagement crisis:  Diagnosis and treatment of management problems.  New York, NY:  Irvington Publishers. 

Leman, K. (1989). Growing up first born: The pressure and privilege of being number one. New York: Delacorte Press. 

Leman, K. (1985). The birth order book. Grand Rapids, MI. Revell. 

Zukav, G. & Francis, L. (2001). The Heart of the soul: Emotional awareness. New York: Fireside.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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