Quotations about   character

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We’re like a rich father who wishes he knew how to give his son the hardships that made the father such a man.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) American poet
Comment, “Meet the Press” (22 Mar 1959)

When asked by Ernest Lindley whether American civilization had improved or declined in his lifetime. Often misquoted as "Americans are like a rich father who wishes he knew how to give his son the hardships that made him rich."
Added on 13-Mar-19 | Last updated 13-Mar-19
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Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or bicycle.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, ch. 4 (2009)
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Added on 4-Oct-18 | Last updated 4-Oct-18
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Perhaps the condition of women affords, in all countries, the best criterion by which to judge the character of men.

Frances "Fanny" Wright (1795-1852) Scottish-American writer, lecturer, social reformer
Views of Society and Manners in America, Letter 23, Mar. 1820 (1821)
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Added on 2-Oct-18 | Last updated 4-Oct-18
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For the whole thing about matrimony is this: We fall in love with a personality, but we must live with a character. Behind the pretty wallpaper and the brightly painted plaster lurk the yards of tangled wire and twisted pipes, ready to run a short or spring a leak on us without a word of warning.

Peter De Vries (1910-1993) American editor, novelist, satirist
Mrs. Wallop (1970)
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Often misquoted as "The difficulty with marriage is that ..."
Added on 1-Aug-18 | Last updated 1-Aug-18
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Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

John Wooden (1910-2010) American basketball player and coach
They Call Me Coach, ch. 9, epigram (1972)
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Added on 31-Jul-18 | Last updated 31-Jul-18
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Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.

George Washington (1732-1799) American military leader, Founding Father, US President (1789-1797)
Letter to Alexander Hamilton (28 Aug 1788)
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Added on 3-Apr-18 | Last updated 3-Apr-18
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We do not judge men by what they are in themselves, but by what they are relatively to us.

Anne Sophie Swetchine (1782-1857) Russian-French author and salonist [Madame Swetchine]
The Writings of Madame Swetchine, “Airelles”, #25 (1869) [ed. Count de Falloux, tr. Preston]
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Added on 22-Nov-17 | Last updated 22-Nov-17
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One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.

Stendhal (1783-1842) French writer [pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle]
On Love, Book 3 “Fragments” (1822)
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Bad temper is an indication of a man’s character; every man can be judged by the things which make him mad.

Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) American Catholic archbishop, preacher, televangelist
Love One Another (1944)
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Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
The Revolutionist’s Handbook, “Honor” (1905)
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Added on 24-Oct-17 | Last updated 24-Oct-17
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At twenty a man is a Peacock, at thirty a Lion, at forty a Camel, at fifty a Serpent, at sixty a Dog, at seventy an Ape, and at eighty nothing.

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish writer.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom, #276 “Know how to renew your character [Saber renovar el genio]” (1647) [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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Added on 23-Oct-17 | Last updated 23-Oct-17
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You can tell the character of every man when you see how he gives and receives praise.

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC-AD 65) Roman statesman, philosopher, playwright [Lucius Annaeus Seneca]
Moral Letters to Lucilius [Epistulae morales ad Lucilium], Letter 52 “On choosing our teachers,” Sec. 12
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Added on 17-Oct-17 | Last updated 17-Oct-17
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No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.

William James (1842-1910) American psychologist and philosopher
The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, “Habit” (1890)
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Added on 16-Oct-17 | Last updated 16-Oct-17
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Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.

Norman Schwarzkopf (b. 1934) American military leader
(Attributed)
Added on 10-Oct-17 | Last updated 10-Oct-17
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Action is character.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) American writer [Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald]
“Notes for The Last Tycoon” (1941)
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Added on 18-Sep-17 | Last updated 18-Sep-17
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It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself.

Floyd Patterson (1935-2006) American professional boxer
(Attributed)
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Quoted in Gay Talese, Fame and Obscurity: Portraits (1970).
Added on 5-Sep-17 | Last updated 5-Sep-17
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Character is simply habit long continued.

Plutarch (AD 46-127) Greek historian, biographer, essayist [Mestrius Plutarchos]
Moral Writings [Moralia], “On the Education of Children,” 4.3 [tr. Babbitt and Goodwin]
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Added on 29-Aug-17 | Last updated 29-Aug-17
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For my own part, I consider the best and most finished type of man to be the person who is always ready to make allowances for others, on the ground that never a day passes without his being in fault himself, yet who keeps as clear of faults as if he never pardoned them in others.

[Atque ego optimum et emendatissimum existimo, qui ceteris ita ignoscit, tamquam ipse cotidie peccet, ita peccatis abstinet tamquam nemini ignoscat.]

Pliny the Younger (c. 61-c. 113) Roman politician, writer [Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus]
Epistles [Epistulae], Book 8, Letter 22 “To Geminus” [tr. J.B.Firth (1900)]
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Alt. trans.: "The highest of characters, in my estimation, is his, who is as ready to pardon the moral errors of mankind, as if he were every day guilty of some himself; and at the same time as cautious of committing a fault as if he never forgave one."
Added on 22-Aug-17 | Last updated 22-Aug-17
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But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant.

In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held — so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place — who knows?

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, The World Tomorrow (May 1928)
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Added on 16-Aug-17 | Last updated 16-Aug-17
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Character is much easier kept than recovered.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American political philosopher and writer
The American Crisis, #13 (19 Apr 1783)
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Added on 8-Aug-17 | Last updated 8-Aug-17
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In our judgment of men, we are to beware of giving any great importance to occasional acts. By acts of occasional virtue weak men endeavour to redeem themselves in their own estimation, vain men to exalt themselves in that of mankind.

Henry Taylor (1800-1886) English dramatist, poet, bureaucrat, man of letters
The Statesman: An Ironical Treatise on the Art of Succeeding, ch. 3 (1836)
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Added on 8-Aug-17 | Last updated 8-Aug-17
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At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
Notebook, last words (17 Apr 1949)
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See Camus.
Added on 7-Aug-17 | Last updated 18-Sep-17
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It is also characteristic of the great-souled man … to be haughty towards men of position and fortune, but courteous towards those of moderate station, because it is difficult and distinguished to be superior to the great, but easy to outdo the lowly, and to adopt a high manner with the former is not ill-bred, but it is vulgar to lord it over humble people: it is like putting forth one’s strength against the weak.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4, ch. 3, l. 26 – 1124b.19 [tr. Rackham]
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Sometimes paraphrased: "It is not ill-bred to adopt a high manner with the great and the powerful, but it is vulgar to lord it over humble people."

Alt. trans.: "Towards those in high position and prosperity he bears himself with pride, but towards ordinary men with moderation; for in the former case it is difficult to show superiority, and to do so is a lordly mater; whereas in the latter case it is easy. To be haughty among the great is no proof of bad breeding, but haughtiness among the lowly is as base-born a thing as it is to make trial of great strength upon the weak." [tr. Williams (1869)]
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The poverty of goods is easily cured; the poverty of the soul is irreparable.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
Essays, Book 3, ch. 10 “Of Managing the Will” (1588) [tr. Cotton (1877)]
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Alt. trans.: "Poverty of possessions may easily be cured, but poverty of soul never."
Added on 1-Aug-17 | Last updated 1-Aug-17
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“Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are” is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me what you re-read.

François Mauriac (1885-1970) French author, critic, journalist
(Attributed)
Added on 20-Jul-17 | Last updated 20-Jul-17
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We can have no better clue to a man’s character than the company he keeps.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses, Book 3, ch. 34 (1517) [tr. Thomson (1883)]
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Alt. trans.: "There is no better indication of a man's character than the company which he keeps."
Added on 18-Jul-17 | Last updated 18-Jul-17
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The wisest man could ask no more of Fate
Than to be simple, modest, manly, true,
Safe from the Many, honored by the Few;
To count as naught in World, or Church, or State,
But inwardly in secret to be great.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) American diplomat, essayist, poet
“Jeffries Wyman,” The Nation #484 (8 Oct 1874)
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Added on 20-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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It is by presence of mind in untried emergencies that the native metal of a man is tested.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) American diplomat, essayist, poet
“Abraham Lincoln,” The North American Review (Jan 1864)
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Added on 13-Jun-17 | Last updated 13-Jun-17
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In character, in manners, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) American poet
Kavanagh: A Tale (1849)
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Added on 6-Jun-17 | Last updated 6-Jun-17
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It is a golden rule that one should not judge people according to their opinions, but according to what these opinions make of them.

Georg C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799) German physicist, writer
In Adolf Wilbrandt (ed.), Selected Writings of Georg C. Lichtenberg (1893)

Alt. trans.:
  • "It is a golden rule not to judge men by their opinions but rather by what their opinions make of them."
  • "One must judge men not by their opinions, but by what their opinions have made of them."
  • "Don't judge a man by his opinions, but what his opinions have made of him."
Added on 30-May-17 | Last updated 30-May-17
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Perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
(Attributed)

In Noah Brooks "Lincoln's Imagination," _Scribner's Monthly (Aug 1879).
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If all else fails, the character of a man can be recognized by nothing so surely as by a jest which he takes badly.

Georg C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799) German physicist, writer
Aphorisms, K.46 (1765-99) [tr. Hollingdale (1990)]
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Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.

Oscar Levant (1906-1972) American pianist, composer, actor, wit
Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965)
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Every man has three characters — that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has.

Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) French journalist and novelist
A Tour Round My Garden [Voyage autour de mon jardin] (1851)
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Added on 25-Apr-17 | Last updated 2-May-17
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It used to be a good hotel, but that proves nothing — I used to be a good boy, for that matter. Both of us have lost character of late years.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Innocents Abroad, ch. 57 (1869)
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Added on 20-Apr-17 | Last updated 20-Apr-17
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The fortitude which has encountered no dangers, that prudence which has surmounted no difficulties, that integrity which has been attacked by no temptations, can at best be considered but as gold not yet brought to the test, of which therefore the true value cannot be assigned.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
The Rambler #150 (24 Aug 1751)
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As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.

Harper Lee (b. 1926) American writer [Nellie Harper Lee]
To Kill a Mockingbird, ch. 23 (1960)
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A man is what he is, not what men say he is. His character no man can touch. His character is what he is before his God and his Judge; and only himself can damage that. His reputation is what men say he is. That can be damaged; but reputation is for time, character is for eternity.

John Bartholomew Gough (1817-1886) Anglo-American social reformer and temperance orator
(Attributed)

Quoted in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895).
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Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.

Other Authors and Sources
Japanese proverb
Added on 21-Mar-17 | Last updated 21-Mar-17
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A man’s character is his fate.

Heraclitus (c.540-c.480 BC) Greek philosopher [also Heracleitus]
“On the Universe,” fragment 121
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You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

William J. H. Boetcker (1873-1962) German-American religious leader, author, public speaker [William John Henry Boetcker]
“The Industrial Decalogue” (1916)

Often referred to as "The Ten Cannots," and also often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln.
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To look up and not down,
To look forward and not back,
To look out and not in — and
To lend a hand.

Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) American clergyman and author
“Ten Times One is Ten” (1870)
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Talents are best nurtured in solitude; character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, statesman, scientist
Torquato Tasso, Act 1, sc. 2 (1790)
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All of your scholarship, all your study of Shakespeare and Wordsworth would be vain if at the same time you did not build your character and attain mastery over your thoughts and your actions.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) Indian philosopher and nationalist [Mahatma Gandhi]
Speech to students, Agra, in Young India (19 Sep 1929)
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We should not be too hasty in bestowing either our praise or censure on mankind, since we shall often find such a mixture of good and evil in the same character, that it may require a very accurate judgment and a very elaborate inquiry to determine on which side the balance turns.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) English novelist, dramatist, satirist
The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, Vol. 5 (1743)
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People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
The Conduct of Life, “Worship” (1860)
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Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American political philosopher and writer
Common Sense, “Of the Present Ability of America” (1776)
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The slander of some people is as great a recommendation as the praise of others. For one is as much hated by the dissolute world, on the score of virtue, as by the good, on that of vice.

fielding-slander-recommendation-praise-wist_info-quote

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) English novelist, dramatist, satirist
The Temple Beau, Act 1, sc. 1 (1729)
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Difficulties are things that show what men are.

epictetus-difficulties-show-what-men-are-wist_info-quote

Epictetus (c.55-c.135) Greek (Phrygian) Stoic philosopher
The Discourses, Book 1, ch. 24
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Character is higher than intellect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
The American Scholar, Sec. 3 (1837)
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What you get by reaching your goals is not nearly so important as what you become by reaching them.

ziglar-what-you-become-by-reaching-them-wist_info-quote

Hilary Hinton "Zig" Ziglar (1926-2012) American author, salesperson, motivational speaker
Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles (1974)

Ziglar used multiple variations of this phrase. Also attributed to Goethe and Thoreau. For more discussion see here.
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Characters never change. Opinions alter — characters are only developed.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) English politician and author
(Attributed)

Quoted in Joseph Waldo Denny, Wearing The Blue in The Twenty-Fifth Mass. Volunteer Infantry (1879).
Added on 20-Dec-16 | Last updated 20-Dec-16
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Convinced that character is all and circumstances nothing, [the Puritan] sees in the poverty of those who fall by the way, not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will.

R. H. Tawney (1880-1962) English writer, economist, historian, social critic [Richard Henry Tawney]
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)
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Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.

Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) American lawyer, politician, US President (1925-29)
Foundations of the Republic (1926)
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