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How Your Birth Order Affects Your Odds of Success

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You’ve probably never been asked if you’re an only child in a job interview—but whether you have siblings, how many you have and where you fall in the hierarchy can play an important role in the work you love, the career you pursue and how successful you’ll be.

The stereotypes of the focused, striving first-born; the charismatic wild-child of a last-born; and the lost-in-the-thickets middle-born are all very real things, as psychologists have increasingly been learning and as I discovered when I was writing my 2011 book, The Sibling Effect.

First-borns come into the world as their parents’ sole princess or prince. They are more inclined to be pampered, more inclined to be indulged, more inclined to grow up with a sense that they sit at the center of the familial orbit. That’s a pretty sweet deal, and they do what they can to play by the rules and keep the system running.

Last-borns are not so satisfied with the existing order. They are the smallest and weakest people in the playroom—the ones that, if they were puppies or piglets, would get the worst nursing spots on the milk bar that is mom. And if they were baby birds, they would be nudged from the nest.

That makes them more inclined to be rebellious (the better to overturn the system). It also makes them funnier, more intuitive and more charismatic than their older siblings. If you can’t use strength and size to prevent yourself from getting pushed around, you learn to disarm with charm and to pay attention to other people’s thoughts and motivations in order to stay one step ahead of them—what psychologists call a low-power strategy.

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And as for middle siblings? Well, they’re more of a puzzle. They may adopt the behaviors of the biggest siblings or the littlest ones—or they may find some behavioral blend of the two. Nothing wrong with that, but having grown up in a home in which they may have felt forever outshone by the bright lights of the oldest and youngest, they are also likelier to suffer from self-esteem issues or even depression.

In the workplace, all of this can play out a lot of ways. First-borns are statistically likelier to be CEOs, Senators and astronauts—and to make more money than their younger siblings, too. That doesn’t mean that the younger siblings are shut out of those careers, but it does mean that if they achieve the same high station, they will perform very differently.

Studies of CEOs have shown that those who are first-borns tend to run their companies conservatively—improving things by, say, streamlining product lines, simplifying distribution routes and generally making sure the trains run on time. Last-borns are more likely to blow up the tracks and buy new trains—reinventing a company entirely, rather than simply reforming or improving it.

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Something similar is true for employees outside of the executive suite. Last-borns will take bigger risks with a project or a product than a first-born ever would.

Last-borns have other kinds of career inclinations, too. Multiple studies have shown that the baby of the family is likelier than other siblings to be a writer or artist or especially a comedian—Stephen Colbert, the youngest of 11 siblings, is a great example of this. All this, again, speaks to the last-born’s ability to get inside other people’s heads. You can’t write a powerful poem if you don’t deeply understand what moves your potential readers.

It may be harder for middle-borns to find the best spot along this behavioral continuum—one of the reasons they may need a bit more time to choose a career in which they can thrive. But the siblings in the middle come factory loaded with something the older and younger brothers and sisters are less likely to have: The very fact of growing up in a home in which your emotional needs were not met as readily as the other siblings’ were makes you more inclined to build bigger and denser relationship networks outside the home.

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At the heart of nearly all jobs is that kind of relationship management—connecting, negotiating, brokering peace between differing sides. Middle siblings may not wind up as the corporate chiefs or the comedians, but whatever they do, they’re likely to do it more collegially and agreeably—and, as a result, more successfully—than other siblings.

Your birth order may be immutable, but the talents and traits it leaves you with don’t have to be. They key is recognizing those talents and traits and working to build a career that they will best and most successfully serve.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com