We First Make Our Habits and Then Our Habits Make Us

John Dryden? Frederick Langbridge? Tryon Edwards? Nathanael Emmons? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably insightful statement about patterns of behavior is usually credited to the famous English poet John Dryden who died in 1700:

We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.

I have not been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that John Dryden said or wrote the statement above, and QI believes that the misattribution resulted from a misreading that occurred more than one hundred years ago; details are supplied further below.

Dryden did pen a vivid statement about poor habits that appeared in a collection published in 1700 titled “Fables Ancient and Modern Translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with Original Poems by Mr. Dryden”. The following lines are from Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

To kill Man-killers, Man has lawful Pow’r,
But not th’extended Licence, to devour.

Ill Habits gather by unseen degrees,
As Brooks make Rivers, Rivers run to Seas.

In 1884 a partial match for the expression under examination appeared in “The Central News” of Perkasie, Pennsylvania: 2

We are all what our habits make us, and what better work can we do for those committed to us than to see that these right habits are formed? A little decision will bring this about.

In 1888 the religious writer Frederick Langbridge authored “The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children” which contained a strong match for the quotation. Langbridge employed the metaphorical domain of pottery while discussing human growth and moral character: 3

Every time you go to bed your clay is so many hours nearer to its final mould. A few years of such days—a long time to look forward, but a short time to look back upon—and there you will be: a beautiful goodly vase, or a cracked, misshapen vessel, fit only for base and vulgar uses. We are our own potters; for our habits make us, and we make our habits.

Langbridge used antimetabole, but the two phrases of the adage were reversed when compared to the popular modern version. Also, he suggested that the two activities actually occurred in parallel.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading We First Make Our Habits and Then Our Habits Make Us


  1. 1700, Title: Fables ancient and modern translated into verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer, with original poems by Mr. Dryden, Author: John Dryden (1631-1700), Section: Of the Pythagorean Philosophy: From Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book XV, Quote Page 509, Publication Information: Printed for Jacob Tonson, London. (Early English Books Online)
  2. 1884 December 4, The Central News, Regard for Order, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Perkasie, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1888, The Happiest Half-Hour: Sunday Talks with Children by Frederick Langbridge, Chapter IX: Twigs and Trees, Start Page 63, Quote Page 65, The Religious Tract Society, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Whether You Believe You Can Do a Thing or Not, You Are Right

Henry Ford? Virgil? John Dryden? John Herbert Phillips? Del Howard? Harlowe B. Andrews? Norman Vincent Peale? Mary Kay Ash? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An aphorism highlighting the power of positive thinking and warning about the danger of negative thinking has often been attributed to automotive titan Henry Ford. Here are four versions:

  1. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
  2. Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
  3. If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.
  4. If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.

Did Ford really craft this adage? The saying has also been linked to Mary Kay Ash who created a cosmetics empire and Norman Vincent Peale who emphasized positive thinking in his self-help and religious writings.

Quote Investigator: In September 1947 the influential mass-circulation magazine “The Reader’s Digest” published the following freestanding quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
— Henry Ford

This was the earliest strong match for the statement found by QI. Henry Ford died in April 1947; hence, the adage was ascribed to him a few months after his death. Unfortunately, “The Reader’s Digest” did not provide any precise information about the source; hence, there is some residual uncertainty. During the following years the expression coupled with the Ford ascription was reprinted in other periodicals and newspapers.

Ideational precursors were in circulation long before 1947, but the phrasing was less concise and elegant. The evolution of these expressions will be presented below.

Top researcher Barry Popik 2 and the key reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” have both examined questions in this topic area, and this entry, in part, builds on their valuable explorations. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whether You Believe You Can Do a Thing or Not, You Are Right


  1. 1947 September, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 51, (Filler item), Quote Page 64, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: If you think you can, you can (Mary Kay Ash?), Date on website: September 24, 2007, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on February 3, 2015) link
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 256, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)