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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

When people ask me to define character, I often reply that character is “goodness in action.” But this definition doesn’t address how we come to know, care about, or practice goodness. That’s why I love sharing with students of all ages (PreK to graduate school) the following quote:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words.

Watch your words, they become your actions.

Watch your actions, they become your habits.

Watch your habits, they become your character.

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Scholars are not quite sure who penned this pithy aphorism. Some think it was Lao Tzu, the Tao philosopher. Others suggest Ralph Waldo Emerson (who used the term “sow” instead of “watch”). What we do know is that the quote “character is destiny” has long been attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

I love this axiom so much because each line is packed with enduring wisdom, and not surprisingly, some compelling research.

Watch your thoughts, they become your words.

In Proverbs 23, we read that “as a man thinks, so he is.” Or, as the Buddha once said, “We are what we think.” Today, neuroscientists have created a science of “inner speech” confirming this ancient insight and wisdom. Interested in learning more? Take a look at this fascinating article in Scientific American

Watch your words, they become your actions.

Researchers have also explored the benefits of refuting negative thoughts with positive self-talk. In short, ample studies show how positive self-talk improves performance, including among athletes. My favorite book on the subject is by Ethan Kross, titled Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.

Watch your actions, they become your habits.

If you believe in the truth of this statement, shouldn’t our challenge as educators be to convince students that their habits shape the sort of person they want to become? Yet, while most students will learn about Newton’s three laws of motion in eighth grade, I couldn’t find any curriculum in the United States where eighth graders learn about the science of habit formation. Interested in learning more? I recently wrote an article for the Greater Good Science Center titled How to Help Your Students Develop Positive Habits

Watch your habits, they become your character.

I struggle a bit with this section of the quote. While Aristotle does suggest that “we are what we repeatedly do,” I am not sure habits alone form our character. Beliefs shape our character. So do our commitments. In fact, in this article I argue that our commitments become the fiber and connecting threads of our life narrative, the storylines that become the plot of our lives.  

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

The truth of this statement is never clearer to me than when I attend a funeral and listen to the eulogies. Whether I knew the person well or not, I always seem to learn something about the person’s character. How kind he was. How loyal she was. Yet as David Brooks argues in his book The Road to Character our society seems to value our “resume virtues” far more than our “eulogy virtues.” How sad.

There’s one important insight that I haven’t yet mentioned. Beyond these 5 essential steps, we also need to establish a practice that enables us to objectively “watch” our thoughts, words, and actions. Some may use a mindfulness technique. Some may go to confession. Others may write in a journal. What’s critical is to avoid falling into the trap that it’s always other people who have to change, not me. We can never forget that our character is forged, especially during adolescence and into adulthood, on the anvil of authentic reflection.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Jenny Lou Grindle

    Thank you so much for sharing this Dr. Schwartz! I love this quote and it’s great reminder to strive to be valued for my eulogy virtues, not my resume virtues. I just printed it out to hang in my classroom.

  2. Scarlett Lewis

    Arthur, I admire and respect you. This is the most important lesson to be taught today, by parents and educators. Share this article everywhere, with everyone!

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