Life is What Happens To You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

John Lennon? Allen Saunders? Quin Ryan? Walter Ward? Henry Cooke? Robert Balzer? L. S. McCandless? Publilius Syrus? Thomas a Kempis? William Gaddis?

Question for 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?

Reply from 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:[ref] YouTube video, Title: John Lennon – Beautiful Boy, Uploaded by TheInnerRevolution on Nov 22, 2009. (Accessed at on May 4, 2012; video removed after this date) [/ref]

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. A partial match occurred in September 2, 1956 within the comic strip “Mary Worth” which was written by Allen Saunders and distributed by Publishers Syndicate. The character Guy expressed ambivalence about a relationship, and the character Mary Worth delivered an insightful comment:[ref] 1956 September 1, The Calgary Herald, Section: Comics, Comic Strip Mary Worth by writer Allen Saunders and artist Ken Ernst of Publishers Syndicate, (Date inscribed in comic strip is 9-2-56), Quote Page 16 (Unnumbered), Column, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) link [/ref]



A full match occurred on December 18, 1956 in the “Stockton Record” of Stockton, California:[ref] 1956 December 18, Stockton Record, Section: Editorial Page, Scissors: A Roundup of Best Humor, Quote Page 34, Column 5, Stockton, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

And In Conclusion
Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.—Publishers Syndicate.

QI hypothesizes that the statement above was derived from the statement in “Mary Worth” although the phrasing was somewhat different. The title of the Stockton newspaper article was “Scissors: A Roundup of Best Humor” which indicated that the statement was reprinted from another periodical.

Specifically, QI believes that the statement was reprinted from the January 1957 issue of “Reader’s Digest” magazine. This date was misleading because the magazine was actually available at least two weeks before its cover date. Interestingly, The “Reader’s Digest” presented the name of the author of the statement:[ref] 1957 January, Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 32, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Allen Saunders: Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.
—Publishers Syndicate

The item above appeared in a section called “Quotable Quotes” in “Reader’s Digest”. Material for this section was sometimes submitted by readers, and it was not rigorously verified.

QI conjectures that an unknown person saw the “Mary Worth” comic strip and was impressed by the statement from Allen Saunders. The person later submitted an item to “Reader’s Digest” based on an imperfect memory. The item contained a rephrased version of the statement credited to Saunders. The magazine accepted the submission and published it.

Before the discovery of the citation in “Mary Worth” the earliest commonly known evidence was the citation in the “Reader’s Digest”. Three important reference works list the “Reader’s Digest” citation: “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”[ref] 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) [/ref], “The Quote Verifier”[ref] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 123-124 and 305, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref], and “The New Yale Book of Quotations”.[ref] 2021, The New Yale Book of Quotations, Compiled by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Allen Saunders, Quote Page 716, Column 2,  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

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:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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:[ref] 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 [/ref]

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.

On September 2, 1956 a partial match occurred in the comic strip “Mary Worth” by Allen Saunders as mentioned at the beginning of this article:


In January 1957 “Reader’s Digest” magazine printed a version of the saying which matched the modern version:

Allen Saunders: Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.
—Publishers Syndicate

Many of the quotations published in the widely-circulated “Reader’s Digest” were reprinted in other periodicals. For example, a Charleston, South Carolina paper printed the saying in January 1957:[ref] 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) [/ref]

“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.[ref] 1957 June 21, Denton Record-Chronicle, Round About Town by R. J. (Bob) Edwards, Page 4, Column 3, Denton, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

The version of the saying in “Mary Worth” was not forgotten. In September 1957 an advertisement for a realtor in a Lexington, Kentucky contained the following:[ref] 1957 September 4, The Lexington Leader, (Classified advertisement for Barney Treacy Realtor), Quote Page 20, Column 8, Lexington, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Life is something which happens while you are waiting for something else, take heed act quickly and purchase this nice investment.

Also, in September 1957 the “Reader’s Digest” version 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.[ref] 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) [/ref] In November 1957 the quote appeared in “The Irish Digest” as a filler item. No attribution was listed.[ref] 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) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1958 March 01, Rockford Register-Republic, Earl’s Pearls by Earl Wilson [Syndicated], Page 2-A, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1958 April 10, Boston Globe, “All Sorts: That Boston Accent…What Did He Say?” by Joe Harrington, Page 25, Boston, Massachusetts (ProQuest) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1958 September 18, Chicago Tribune, A Line O’ Type or Two, Page 16, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1961 September 14, Los Angeles Sentinel, Theatricals: The Stem by Paul C. McGee, Page C2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1962 August 12, Chicago Tribune, “Radio TV Gag Bag” by Larry Wolters, Page C28, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1963 April 30, Aberdeen American News [Aberdeen Daily News], Earl Wilson’s New York, Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1964 January 15, State Times Advocate, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 10-C, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1964 May 17, Chicago Tribune, Larry Wolters’ Gag Bag, Page 115, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1965 November 19, Dallas Morning News, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Section: A, Page 27, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

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:[ref] 1967 December 8, Plain Dealer, Dear Abby: Fresh News; Stale Money by Abigail Van Buren, Page 39, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

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 1975 the influential postmodernist literary figure William Gaddis published the novel “J R”, and one of his characters mentioned the saying:[ref] 1975, J R by William Gaddis, Quote Page 394, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

. . . God damned point is life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans, read that in a dentist office once . . .

In 1979 “1,001 Logical Laws” compiled by John Peers included the saying and connected it to someone named Knight:[ref] 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) [/ref]

Knight’s Law:  Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research on this topic. In September 1956 Allen Saunders published the remark “Life is something which happens while we’re waiting for something else” in the “Mary Worth” comic strip from Publishers Syndicate. The character who delivered the line described it as an “old saying”.

QI conjectures that an unknown individual saw this statement and rephrased it to yield “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. This unknown individual submitted the revised instance to “Reader’s Digest” while crediting Allen Saunders of Publishers Syndicate. “Reader’s Digest” published this version in the January 1957 issue which was distributed in December 1956.

This expression has been quite popular. Multiple phrasings and  attributions have appeared during subsequent decades. John Lennon included an instance in the lyrics of a song in 1980.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Jay whose question initiated this exploration. Many thanks to Frank Daniels who located the crucial statement written by Allen Saunders in the September 2, 1956  “Mary Worth” comic strip. Daniels told QI about this citation, and he suggested that the modern version of the saying was derived from this statement by Saunders.

Also, thanks to Jeffrey Guterman who asked about instances before 1957, and to LorraineM who pointed to Proverbs 16:9. Additional thanks to Kenneth Womack who told QI about the William Gaddis citation. Many thanks to researcher Nur Ibrahim at Snopes who presented the December 18, 1956 citation in an article dated July 9, 2023.

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. On December 31, 2022 the 1975 citation was added to the article. On July 13, 2023 the December 18, 1956 citation was added to the article, and the article was partially rewritten. On August 24, 2023 the citation dated September 2, 1956 was added to the article, and the article was partially rewritten.

Exit mobile version