John Lennon? Allen Saunders? Quin Ryan? Walter Ward? Henry Cooke? Robert Balzer? L. S. McCandless? Publilius Syrus? Thomas a Kempis?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, a medical emergency threw all my carefully constructed plans into complete disarray. I was reminded of a remarkably astute and ruefully humorous saying credited to the musical superstar John Lennon:
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
When did he say this? Was he the first to express this idea?
Quote Investigator: John Lennon did compose a song containing this saying and released it in 1980. The song was called “Beautiful Boy” or “Darling Boy” and it was part of the album “Double Fantasy”. Lennon wrote the lyrics about his experiences with his son Sean whose mother is Yoko Ono. In 2012 YouTube had a streamable version of the song, and the phrase could be heard at 2 minutes 16 seconds into the track which had a total length of 4 minutes 12 seconds. Lennon sang the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Before you cross the street take my hand.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
But the general expression can be traced back more than two decades before this time. The first known appearance was in an issue of Reader’s Digest magazine dated January 1957. The statement was printed together with nine other unrelated sayings in a section called “Quotable Quotes”: 2
Allen Saunders: Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.
The newspaper comic strip “Steve Roper” was written by an individual named Allen Saunders and distributed by Publishers Syndicate. It is likely that the attribution above was referencing him. Saunders also worked on the strips “Mary Worth” and “Kerry Drake.” But the saying has not yet been located in any of these comics. Three important reference works list the Reader’s Digest citation to Saunders: The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs 3, The Quote Verifier 4, and The Yale Book of Quotations. 5
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Semantic precursors for this saying appeared in ancient times. Here are two instances from “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs” that referred to God and Fate: 6
A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps. (Cor hominis disponit viam suam: sed Domini est dirigere gressus eius.)
Old Testament: Proverbs, xvi, 9. (c. 350 B. C.)
Man intends one thing, Fate another. (Homo semper aliud, Fortuna aliud cogitat.)
Publilius Syrus, Sententiae. No.253.(c.43 B.C.)
Another theological precursor appeared in the devotional book “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis published in Latin in the 1400s. An 1881 translation into English by Reverend W. H. Hutchings contained a passage about God’s power. In the following text the word “disposes” means determines the course of events: 7
The purposes of just men depend for their fulfilment rather upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; and, in whatever they take in hand, they always trust in His help.
For man proposes, but God disposes; for man’s way is not in himself.
Many of the quotations published in the widely-circulated Reader’s Digest were reprinted in other periodicals. For example, a Charleston, South Carolina paper 8 printed the saying in January 1957:
“Life,” reads a line of an article in The Reader’s Digest, “is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” How true.
The trouble is most of us don’t realize this except in retrospect and then life has already happened.
In June 1957 the adage appeared in a Texas newspaper as a freestanding filler item. The attribution given was the same as that in the Reader’s Digest: “Allen Saunders, Publishers Syndicate”, but the magazine was not mentioned. 9
In September 1957 the quote was included in an advertisement for Swanson’s, a clothing retailer. The words were listed together with several other sayings and no attribution was provided. 10 In November 1957 the quote appeared in “The Irish Digest” as a filler item. No attribution was listed. 11
In March 1958 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson published a version of the saying in a subsection titled “Earl’s Pearls”. The words were identical except for the use of the contraction “we’re”. This time a new person named Quin Ryan received acknowledgement: 12
Some people have everything – except fun … Life, says Quin Ryan of Chicago, is what happens to us while we’re making other plans … See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil — and half the women’s clubs would fold up in a hurry.
In April 1958 a slightly modified version of the saying was printed in a column of the Boston Globe. The word “when” replaced the word “while”, and no credit was given: 13
Life is what happens to us when we are making other plans.
In September 1958 a variant of the adage was published in a Chicago Tribune column “A Line O’ Type or Two”. The statement was credited to Quin Ryan: 14
Life is what happens to every man’s Career while he’s making other plans. Quin Ryan
In 1961 the maxim was associated with another person in the pages of the Los Angeles Sentinel: 15
Bon vivant, Walter Ward, from somewhere in Italy writes to say, “Life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans.”
In 1962 the syndicated columnist Larry Wolters reported on the expression in “Radio TV Gag Bag”. This column specialized in collecting jokes and bon mots that were broadcast on radio and television stations in the United States. Wolters identified the performer who delivered the line: 16
Henry Cooke: “A thoughtful man is one who gives his wife a birthday present without mentioning her birthday past.”
Also: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
In 1963 the saying reappeared in the column of Earl Wilson, but this time the word “busy” was inserted, and the phrase was reassigned to Henry Cooke: 17
REMEMBERED QUOTE: Life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans. — Henry Cooke.
In 1964 the syndicated columnist and quotation collector Bennett Cerf ascribed a version of the saying to the author Robert Balzer: 18
Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. —Robert Balzer.
In 1964 the maxim reappeared in the column of Larry Wolters now called “Gag Bag”, but this time the phrase was reassigned to Robert Balzer: 19
Robert Balzer: “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.”
In 1965 Earl Wilson decided that the expression was interesting enough to print another time. He assigned the following concise version to someone named L. S. McCandless: 20
REMEMBERED QUOTE: “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” — L. S. McCandless.
In 1967 a variant of the adage was printed in the popular “Dear Abby” column of Pauline Phillips: 21
Confidential To Del Ray Beachcomber: Yes. See your lawyer about changing your will. Fate is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.
In 1979 “1,001 Logical Laws” compiled by John Peers included the saying and connected it to someone named Knight: 22
Knight’s Law: Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.
In conclusion, based on currently available evidence this piece of wisdom can be credited to Allen Saunders. John Lennon also included it in the lyrics of a song many years later. The expression is quite popular and has acquired multiple attributions over the decades.
(Great thanks to Jay whose question initiated this exploration. Also, thanks to Jeffrey Guterman who asked about instances before 1957, and to LorraineM who pointed to Proverbs 16:9.)
Update History: On January 31, 2021 citations for Proverbs, Publilius Syrus, and Thomas à Kempis were added. Also, the bibliographic notes were changed to a numeric system.
- YouTube video, Title: John Lennon – Beautiful Boy, Uploaded by TheInnerRevolution on Nov 22, 2009. (Accessed at youtube.com on May 4, 2012) link ↩
- 1957 January, Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Page 32, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 145, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 123-124 and 305, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Allen Saunders, Page 666, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: God, Subtopic: Man Proposes, God Disposes, Quote Page 981, The Macmillan Company, New York.(Verified with scans) ↩
- 1881, Of the Imitation of Christ, in Four Books by Thomas à Kempis, Translated and Edited by the Reverend W. H. Hutchings, Book 2, Chapter 12: Of the Royal Way of the Holy Cross, Quote Page 82, Rivingtons, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1957 January 27, News And Courier, Lowcountry Gossip: Beaufort TV Viewer Finds Quiz Programs Distasteful by Chlotilde R. Martin, Page 11-B, Column 1, Charleston, South Carolina. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1957 June 21, Denton Record-Chronicle, Round About Town by R. J. (Bob) Edwards, Page 4, Column 3, Denton, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1957 September 24, Titusville Herald, A Little of This and That, [Quotation within an advertisement for a store named Swanson’s], Page 2, Column 2, Titusville, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1957 November, The Irish Digest, Volume 61, [One of two unrelated freestanding quotations at the bottom of the page], Page 52, Irish Digest, Dublin, Ireland. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1958 March 01, Rockford Register-Republic, Earl’s Pearls by Earl Wilson [Syndicated], Page 2-A, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1958 April 10, Boston Globe, “All Sorts: That Boston Accent…What Did He Say?” by Joe Harrington, Page 25, Boston, Massachusetts (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 September 18, Chicago Tribune, A Line O’ Type or Two, Page 16, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1961 September 14, Los Angeles Sentinel, Theatricals: The Stem by Paul C. McGee, Page C2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1962 August 12, Chicago Tribune, “Radio TV Gag Bag” by Larry Wolters, Page C28, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1963 April 30, Aberdeen American News [Aberdeen Daily News], Earl Wilson’s New York, Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1964 January 15, State Times Advocate, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 10-C, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1964 May 17, Chicago Tribune, Larry Wolters’ Gag Bag, Page 115, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1965 November 19, Dallas Morning News, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Section: A, Page 27, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1967 December 8, Plain Dealer, Dear Abby: Fresh News; Stale Money by Abigail Van Buren, Page 39, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Page 81, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩