An Ode to Elder Brothers and Sisters

By Greg Nathan posted December 12, 2023

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by renowned psychologist, Adam Grant, about the science of fulfilling our hidden potential. In a chapter on bootstrapping, which is where we use our own resources to pull ourselves out of sticky situations, he reminds us that one of the most effective ways to strengthen our abilities is to teach others.

Why mentoring others makes us smarter

He also suggests this is why the eldest child in a family is often the smartest. Yes, numerous studies have consistently shown that elder children slightly outperform their younger siblings on intelligence tests.

The reason for this is not biological, nor is it because they had more attention from their parents. It is because older children strengthen their ability to learn by mentoring their little brothers and sisters in all types of situations. I remember my older brother, Raf, helping me understand the logic of algebra, explaining why Jimmy Hendrix was such an amazing guitarist, protecting me from bullies, and showing me how to degrease the spark plugs on the old car he had passed on to me. Recently he coached me over the phone on how to patch an annoying hole that had appeared in our wooden bathroom floor, using match sticks and araldite glue.

This process of being a mentor to younger siblings builds the capabilities of the older sibling and helps them to become better learners themselves. Once a person learns how to use their initiative to learn and find out what they need, the sky’s the limit.

Raf's story

This is the case with my brother Raf, who decided early on that a formal university education wasn’t for him. Like many pioneers, he chose to manage his own learning journey with the help of mentors and coaches when he needed them. As a result, he has achieved a remarkable level of mastery in a diverse range of occupations.

At the age of 21 Raf decided he wanted to be a woodworker and sought out a craftsman, offering to work for nothing so he could learn. Within five years he was running a furniture factory, and then started his own successful business, designing and making affordable, high-quality handcrafted furniture.His many creations as a furniture maker are impressive, and people who visit our home often comment on the beautiful pieces he has made for us. He has even made me a beautiful electric guitar which I often use for my franchise songs.

An example of bootstrapping in action

A few years later Raf decided there needed to be more opportunities for woodworkers to display their craftmanship. Even though he had never run an event, he hired the iconic Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne and set out to organise the first ever Working with Wood Show. There were plenty of naysayers, but Raf believed in his ability to bootstrap, and sought advice when he needed it from people he trusted. The morning of the Show’s opening, members of our family manned the doors of the grand old Exhibition Building, staring at an empty car park, wondering if anyone would show up. Then a bus filled with schoolchildren turned into the driveway, followed by a stream of cars and people. Soon an expanding queue of amateur and professional woodworkers was winding its way around the building, and we were struggling to get them through the doors. That first Show attracted over 20,000 attendees!

Raf and his wife Linda then decided to publish a quality magazine that would showcase woodworking stories, techniques and projects. What they lacked in publishing experience, they made up for with a true growth mindset, encompassing perseverance and proactiveness, and in 1992, the Australian Wood Review was born. It continues to be widely regarded as Australia’s premier wood magazine with a social media following in excess of 600,000. You’ll find edition 121 in newsagents and Linda Nathan is still editor.

From glue and nail to herbs and needles

After inventing several innovative tools to help woodworkers improve the quality of their work, Raf turned his hand to something surprisingly different and decided to get a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine. True to his proactive style, he went the extra step and bootstrapped his way to China three times to train under master practitioners. Today he lectures at Chinese Medicine Conferences and has published a breakthrough manual for practitioners that uses photographs of real people, (family members included), instead of the diagrams found in most clinical texts, to map the body’s main acupuncture points.

It's not how hard you work, it’s how well you learn

In Hidden Potential, Adam Grant writes that the key to achieving great things is not how gifted you are, or how hard you work, but how well you learn. It’s also about the character you develop along the way by doing work you believe in and, where necessary, bootstrapping and taking the initiative to seek out the help you need. So, here’s to the pioneering elder brothers and sisters of the world, and all the mentors who generously give their time to help others achieve their hidden potential.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good book to read during the end-of-year break, I’d highly recommend Hidden Potential.

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