Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions – Quote Investigator (2022)

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lao Tzu? Frank Outlaw? Gautama Buddha? Bishop Beckwaith? Father of Margaret Thatcher?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following people have in common: Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, supermarket magnate Frank Outlaw, spiritual teacher Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher? Each one of these individuals has been credited with versions of the following quote:

Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.

Can you sort out this confusing situation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a closely matching expression located by QI was published in a Texas newspaper feature called “What They’re Saying” in May 1977. The saying was ascribed to the creator of a successful U.S. supermarket chain called Bi-Lo:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores

QI believes that this saying evolved over many decades. One interesting property that is shared between the modern expression and several precursor sayings involves wordplay. Consider five of the key words in the saying: words, actions, thoughts, character, and habits. The initial letters can be arranged to spell the repeated focal term: w, a, t, c, h. This type of wordplay will be discussed further below.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order

In 1856 a newspaper in Colchester, England reported on a speech delivered to students which contained a statement that has remained in circulation to the present day. The statement was based on a causal chain reminiscent of the saying under investigation. The expression also used overlapping vocabulary items, i.e., habit, character, and destiny. However, this thematic precursor used a different phrasing and did not include the important word: watch:

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Mr. Wiseman then cautioned his young friends as to the habits they contracted in early life:—”Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.” You sow an act, you reap a habit (acts repeated constitute habits); you sow a habit, you reap a character; you sow a character, you reap a destiny. Let them, he said, cultivate habits of industry, application, and order, and they might rely upon it, with God’s blessing, they would succeed in life. (Applause.)

In 1872 an expression that closely matched the 1856 statement was printed in a newspaper in Iowa. In 1885 a variant of the above saying was credited to Bishop Beckwaith. This important precursor of the modern 1977 saying shared the following vocabulary items: thought, word, action, habit, character, and destiny. In addition, the order of the causal chain was the same:

Plant a thought and reap a word;
plant a word and reap an action;
plant an action and reap a habit;
plant a habit and reap a character;
plant a character and reap a destiny.

In 1889 an article in the journal “Education” included a statement about character that also used a causal chain. The overlapping vocabulary items were: action, habit, and character:

Feeling issues in action, actions become habit, and habits crystallize into character. The formation of a good character, therefore, is largely dependent upon the right unfolding of feeling.

In 1897 a London periodical printed the outline of a sermon that was designed to instruct children about watchfulness:

Begin by holding up a watch. Ask some child to tell you audibly the name of the object which you are exhibiting. The reply will be “A Watch.” Ask another child to spell the word “watch.”‘ You will get for answer “W-A-T-C-H.” Then put away your watch, for you are going to speak about time and its division of hours, minutes, and seconds. Ask for a word beginning with W, and suggest that you have just given one—word. Well, then, watch your words. Speak of the sins of the tongue. “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and keep the door of my lips.”

The sermon continued with a short discussion triggered by each letter in the word “watch”. For example, the commentary on the letter C began as follows. The term “pitch” referred to a dark, thick, and sticky substance:

C—Companions. Watch your Companions. Birds of a feather flock together. Evil communications corrupt good manners. Be careful what friendships you make. We cannot touch pitch and remain undefiled.

The sermon ended with the summary table shown below. The vocabulary overlapped the modern saying attributed to Frank Outlaw. However, “companions” was used instead of “character”. Also, this 1897 instance did not contain a causal chain linking the collection of words:

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W — Watch your Words.
A — Watch your Actions.
T — Watch your Thoughts.
C — Watch your Companions.
H — Watch your Habits.

In 1904 another article in the domain of education commented about character using a causal chain. The excerpt below is similar to the passage in the 1889 citation:

Out of feelings, it has been said, spring actions; actions become habit; and habits crystallize into character. The great functions of the mind should work in harmony, and should be educated to work so.

In 1910 a New York newspaper reported on pastor’s speech which was delivered to children at a religious school. The talk was based on the letters of the word “watch”. The letter “h” was connected to “hours” instead of “habits”:

The pastor gave them a little talk, the text being the word “Watch.” Watch your words, watch your actions, watch your thoughts, watch your character, watch your hours.

In 1919 another version of the sermon based on the word “watch” was presented. In this instance, “h” was connected to “hearts”:

The members of the Sunday School of the church attended the morning services in a body, when the pastor preached a sermon for them, taking for his subject, “Watch.” He took the letters of this word and built his interesting sermon about them, cautioning his hearers to watch their words, actions, thoughts, companions and hearts.

In 1923 another version of a causal chain was presented. The beginning was similar to the saying attributed to Outlaw:

Watch your thoughts, and your words will be alright, and watch your thoughts and words and then your deeds and life will be alright.

In 1926 several young women at a Y.M.C.A. presented short talks based on the letters of “watch”. In this instance, “w” was connected to “ways”, and “h” was connected to “heart”:

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The topic for discussion was “Watch”. Each letter was formed into a word and the following talks were given: “Watch, your Ways,” Virginia Fielder; “Watch, your Actions,” Myrtle Avey; “Watch, your Thoughts,” Bethel Bradley; “Watch, your Character,” Helen Cover; “Watch, your Heart,” Carrie Allen.

Statements using the metaphor of reaping and sowing remained popular. Here is an instance in 1950 with vocabulary choices similar to those in the original query:

Sow a thought, reap a word; sow a word, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. You have all read something like that and there is much truth in the saying.

Finally, by May 1977 a close match to the questioner’s version was printed in a Texas newspaper:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores

In October 1977 a Canandaigua, New York newspaper printed the statement under the title “Words of Wisdom” and credited Frank Outlaw. In 1982 a gossip column in a Toledo, Ohio paper reproduced the expression and ascribed it to Frank Outlaw. In 1985 a Washington state newspaper printed the saying under the title “Quote, Unquote” with the words credited to “Frank Outlaw in Sunshine magazine”. The attribution to Outlaw has continued to appear regularly in books and periodicals to the present day.

The saying under study is sometimes ascribed to the Buddha, and the Dhammapada does contain a passage that is distinct but tangentially related. The Dhammapada is the best-known book in the Pali Buddhist canon. It contains a collection of Buddhist teachings in the form of aphorisms, and it was probably compiled in the third century B.C.E. The text below is from a translation by Thomas Byrom:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

In 1989 a Buddhist spiritual text called “How to Live without Fear & Worry” by K. Sri Dhammananda printed a passage that was somewhat closer to the statement under study. But a careful reading indicated that the words were not actually ascribed to the Buddha. K. Sri Dhammananda stated that the passage echoed the Buddha. Yet, the creator of the passage was unidentified.K. Sri Dhammananda then compared the passage to sentences that have been ascribed to the Buddha, i.e., the words from the Byrom translation presented immediately above:

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The thought manifests as the word,
The word manifests as the deed,
The deed develops into habit,
And the habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its way with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

The words above echo what the Buddha said more than 2500 years ago: ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.’ The truth of this verse is timeless: it is truth whether for the past, the present or the future.

The attachment of the statement to the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently occurred in recent times. For example, a 2009 book about elementary school education attributed the words to Emerson:

Watch your thoughts for they become words,
watch your words for they become actions,
watch your actions, for they become habits,
watch your habits for they become your character,
watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The attachment of the statement to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu also may be recent. The reading community website Goodreads has a webpage with a version of the saying credited to Lao Tzu. The first comment was dated January 2, 2010.

A version of the expression was included in the 2011 biopic about Margaret Thatcher titled “The Iron Lady”:

Meryl Streep speaking as Margaret Thatcher:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.
My father always said that.

In conclusion, based on current evidence it is reasonable to attribute the words of the modern saying to Frank Outlaw; however, QI has not yet located direct confirmation in the form of a book or interview with remarks by Outlaw. Also, the expression probably evolved over a long period of time from precursors such as the 1885 cite and the 1897 cite that shared multiple attributes. Ascriptions to other figures such as Emerson or the Buddha have no known substantive support at this time.

(Great thanks to Barry Popik for providing additional citations and suggestions. Thanks to Mohammad who asked about this saying at the Freakonomics website. Also thanks to Don MacDonald who inquired about the uncertain provenance of the expression via a tweet. Special thanks to J who mentioned the appearance in “The Iron Lady”. The question was fashioned by QI with impetus from these requests.)

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Update history: On January 27, 2013 the 2012 reprint of “The Dhammapada” was replaced by the 1976 edition translated by Thomas Byrom. On March 14, 2013 the citation dated 1856 was added.


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