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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Watch your thoughts..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Watch your thoughts, they become your words...

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"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."






This long quote, often accredited to Lao Tzu, has a simplistic and repetitious style that is similar to his writing, and at least the first two lines would fit within Tao Te Ching - but the concepts of habits, character, and destiny much less so.

       Lao Tzu certainly described human behavior that could be categorized as habits, but he would not explain them that way. According to him, people do what they do mainly out of ignorance. Character is also something distant from Lao Tzu's view that people are really the same, they just act differently. It's not a question of personality, but again of ignorance versus wisdom. It's not about how people are, but what they do or don't do.

       And destiny is a far too deterministic expression of the simple fact that actions have consequences. To Lao Tzu, everything would be possible to correct, usually by avoiding action. Then problems would be solved by themselves, because that is how nature works.


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       There are examples of the type of chain of consequences described in this quote, also in Tao Te Ching. None with the same or similar content, though. One such instance is in chapter 38 (my version):


When the Way is lost there is virtue.
When virtue is lost there is benevolence.
When benevolence is lost there is righteousness.
When righteousness is lost there are rituals.
Rituals are the end of fidelity and honesty,
And the beginning of confusion.


       The quote examined here is definitely not from Tao Te Ching, not even from any distorted version of it that I have come across. But Lao Tzu is far from the only one to whom the quote has been accredited. Among the others are Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Charles Reade, and the Buddha.

       Garson O'Toole has thoroughly tracked down the history of this quote on his website Quote Investigator. A very similar wording was accredited to Bishop Beckwaith (probably a misspelling of John W. Beckwith, 1831-1890) in a newspaper from 1885:


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.


       Both before and after that occurrence, versions with more or less different wordings have been published. An almost identical wording of the quote discussed here was published in a Texas newspaper in 1977, accrediting it to Frank Outlaw, who had been the President of the Bi-Lo chain of stores:


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.


       During the following years, several other newspapers printed the quote, also naming Frank Outlaw as its origin. Soon, it appeared in books, too. The earliest one I found is from 1983: A Treasury of Days, by Dee Danner Barwick (page 23).

       As for accrediting the quote to Lao Tzu, the earliest example Garson O'Toole found is from the website Goodreads in 2010, the date deducted by the first comment on the quote there being from January 2, 2010. That link seems to fail now (August 2020), probably due to Goodreads site changes. The present web page with the quote only has likes since March, 2017. On Internet Archive the 2010 webpage remains, though without dates on the likes.

       On Facebook I found the first post of the quote already from November 17, 2005, giving no source to it. The first Facebook quote accrediting it to Lao Tzu was October 14, 2009.

       In printed books, I found the earliest crediting to Lao Tzu of this quote in My life with the green & gold from 2013, by the sportscaster Jessie Garcia (page 186).

Stefan Stenudd
September 22, 2020.



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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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