No One On His Deathbed Ever Said, ‘I Wish I Had Spent More Time On My Business’

Paul Tsongas? Harold Kushner? Arnold Zack? Barbara Mackoff? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When an individual is lying on a deathbed and contemplating mortality the need to ascribe a transcendent meaning and purpose to life often becomes paramount. Deep bonds of love, caring, and friendship are highlighted. The workaday world recedes in importance. Here are four statements from a family of pertinent sayings:

  • Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office’.
  • No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’.
  • No person on their deathbed ever says they wish they had worked harder.
  • I never heard a dying man say, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

This saying has been attributed to U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas and prominent rabbi author Harold Kushner. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1983 Paul Tsongas was a U. S. Senator for Massachusetts. When he was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer he re-evaluated his life choices and opted not to seek re-election. In 1984 he published the memoir “Heading Home” which included a discussion of his decision. The following passage refers to Niki who was Tsongas’s wife and Arnold Zack who was a lawyer friend. Boldface added by QI: 1

Since I didn’t have a lot of close friends, the family was where I fulfilled my human aspirations. The Senate had become an obstacle to that. As Niki told a reporter later on, “We are a self-contained unit.” Or as an old friend, Arnold Zack, wrote to me in a letter, “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

This is the earliest match known to QI. The saying was popularized by Paul Tsongas, but it originated with Arnold Zack according to current evidence.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1984 “The Miami News” of Florida printed a short piece containing remarks from Tsongas: 2

I used to walk my kids to school and think about re-election. Now I walk my kids to school and think about my kids . . . Somebody wrote me a letter and said, ‘Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time on my business.”’

In June 1984 columnist Howard Means wrote an article in “The Orlando Sentinel” of Florida about women in the workplace. Means contended that the workplace would become less grueling if women held greater power: 3

They would be likely to institute programs that would draw workers away from their jobs, not chain workers to them, because more so than men they realize that precious few people ever lie on their deathbeds wishing they had spent more time in the office or factory.

Also, in June 1984 a newspaper in Hawaii described a speech that Tsongas had delivered at Wheelock College in Boston. Tsongas employed a slightly different version of the quotation: 4

‘I’ve yet to meet anyone who chose family over career and regretted it,” he said. “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I didn’t spend enough time with my business.’”

In December 1984 a columnist in the “Daily News” of New York City presented an astonishing deathbed reflection. The quotation was reversed: 5

On her deathbed, a woman reflects on her life. “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” she whispers.

Dr. Barbara Mackoff, a psychologist, has met a lot of people like that, so many that she has written “Leaving the Office Behind” (Putnam. $12.95). “We’re giving too much at the office, and not enough for our families and our friends . . .”

In 1985 a stay-at-home dad named Ted Sands employed a different phrasing for the saying. No attribution was given: 6

Besides, says Ted Sands, “I never heard a dying man say, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

In 1986 Rabbi Harold S. Kushner published “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough”. He described Paul Tsongas’s decision not to run for re-election: 7

After he made his decision known, a friend wrote to congratulate him on having his priorities straight, adding, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

In 2006 quotation expert Ralph Keyes examined this saying in his book “The Quote Verifier”. Keyes ascribed the remark to Arnold Zack and presented citations for the books by Tsongas and Kushner. Keyes also interviewed Zack and relayed his claim: 8

Zack believes the thought was original to him.

In conclusion, QI believes Arnold Zack deserves credit for this remark. Paul Tsongas attributed the saying to Zack in his 1984 memoir. Harold Kushner used the saying in a 1986 book, but he credited Tsongas’s friend.

(Great thanks to Bob Marshall whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1984, Heading Home by Paul Tsongas, Chapter 7: Leaving, Quote Page 159 and 160, A Borzoi Book: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1984 February 10, The Miami News, Etcetera: Quote unquote, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1984 June 7, The Orlando Sentinel, If women ran workplace there would be time to smell the flowers by Howard Means (Sentinel Staff), Quote Page A22, Column 4, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1984 June 19, The Honolulu Advertiser, People by Milt Guss (Advertiser copyeditor), Quote Page D1, Column 1, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1984 December 16, Daily News, Section: You, Too Much Office by Carol Towarnicky, Quote Page 6, Column 2,New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1985 January 13, Sunday Democrat and Chronicle, Section: Upstate Magazine, They’re Mr. Moms by Julia Hahn, Start Page 12, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1986, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough by Harold S. Kushner, Chapter 9: Why I Am Not Afraid To Die, Quote Page 160 and 161, Summit Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 42, also Section: Source Notes, Quote Page 282, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)