The Apocryphal Twain: “The things you didn’t do.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

David Sivak of did a story on this ubiquitous piece of Twain apocrypha this week and contacted me for comment, so I figured it was a good time to add it to our own archive. David rightly deduced that this is not something Mark Twain said. The more interesting part of these columns, as far as I’m concerned, is who did the quote actually come from and how did it come to be associated with Twain. Unlike many of the apocryphal aphorism I have trace over the past couple years, this false attribution traces back to before the social media era. Because of that endurance, the attribution seems more credible. Books and periodicals produced by reputable publishers and institution – including, for instance, the US Navy – attributed the quote to Twain before the turn of the 21st century.

As David notes, citing the reliable work of Garson O’Toole, the quote in this particular phrasing likely originated with H. Jackson Brown’s 1990 book, P.S. I Love You, in which Brown attributes the quote to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown. But the basic formula dates back somewhat further. In 1982, as part of a syndicated interview about his retirement, the longtime NBC anchor and host, Hugh Downs, said,

“Don’t be afraid to try something. It never hurts as bad as you think to fail. You seldom regret what you do. You regret what you didn’t do. Don’t try to be invulnerable. Don’t worry too much about security. If you build a wall around yourself, you become a prisoner of that wall. Take a chance!”

Register & Tribune Syndicate (February, 1982)

A couple years earlier, Harry Haun had published his Movie Quote Book, in which he reported that on the set of Mildred Pierce (1945), 31-year-old Zachary Scott told 41-year-old Joan Crawford, “As you grow older, you’ll find the the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.”

A.B. Guthrie, a writer of midcentury Westerns, notably Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), wrote in his 1965 autobiography,

“I am free of most encumbrances, so I am free of regret, the most debilitating of indulgences. If you must be regretful, regret what you didn’t do, not what you did. A man lets too many smiling opportunities pass him by.”

The Blue Hen’s Chick (1965)

So how did this bit of wisdom come to be associated with Mark Twain? As best I can tell, we can blame the Peace Corps. In January 1999, they circulated a recruitment advertisement in New York City papers which featured the quote prominently with Twain’s byline.

The next year it showed up in publicity materials from the U.S. Navy and soon thereafter in advertisement for real estate agencies and funeral homes, then became a familiar trope in newspaper editorial and valedictorian speeches.