In Milford, Pennsylvania*, there is a truly impressive mansion called Grey Towers. The couple who built it, Cornelia and Gifford Pinchot, were jaw-droppingly rich. However, what they did with their wealth was not just go into politics, not just build a beautiful house. No: they led lives of diligent, joyful, and altruistic public service, including Gifford's two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania and his time as Chief Forester of the US Forest Service, and Cornelia's participation in the Women's Suffrage movement and despite her family wealth and privilege advocacy for labor reform. They used their beautiful, beautiful home in the woods along the Delaware as a place for friends and colleagues to come and think, to challenge and encourage each other, to get things sorted out.
I've visited the home a few times, and each time it seems more astounding and attractive than the last. Yes, it's a home built with immense wealth: tasteful, understated, and sumptuous. But the Pinchots didn't hoard this loveliness. Their greatest joy was to create a place where the people they cared about could feel welcomed, valued, and inspired because in a setting like that, these friends and colleagues could do amazing work. Amazing work.
If I ever get that kind of money, that's what I want to do with it. Build a great big house and bring wonderful people there and make them feel welcomed and valued, so that they can then go forth, refreshed and inspired, and do amazing things.
Cornelia and Gifford Pinchot (she is marching in a Women's Suffrage parade in New York in this photo; he is maybe sitting and thinking something cool, but it's hard to tell)
I leave you with a collection of maxims for public service from Gifford Pinchot, and I encourage you to consider whether they apply to the work you are doing, whether or not you're in public service.
*Do not ask me to explain it, but Milford, Pennsylvania is a hotbed of creativity. It's a tiny, tiny, tiny town in the middle of the woods that punches way above its weight in terms of the life of the mind. Not only did Cornelia and Gifford run their think-tanks, but it's also the home of the Milford Method of running writing workshops (and the phenomenal constellation of speculative-fiction stars that have congregated in the town for this and other purposes); the home of the Black Bear Film Festival; and the home of God only knows how many writers, painters, scupltors, composers, and other artists.
- A public official is there to serve the public and not to run them.
- Public support of acts affecting public rights is absolutely required.
- It is more trouble to consult the public than to ignore them, but that is what you are hired for.
- Find out in advance what the public will stand for. If it is right and they won’t stand for it, postpone action and educate them.
- Use the press first, last, and all the time if you want to reach the public. Get rid of the attitude of personal arrogance or pride of attainment or superior knowledge.
- Don’t try any sly or foxy politics, because a forester is not a politician.
- Learn tact simply by being absolutely honest and sincere, and by learning to recognize the point of view of the other man and meet him with arguments he will understand.
- Don’t be afraid to give credit to someone else when it belongs to you; not to do so is the sure mark of a weak man. But to do so is the hardest lesson to learn.
- Encourage others to do things; you may accomplish many things through others that you can’t get done on your single initiative.
- Don’t be a knocker; use persuasion rather than force, when possible. Plenty of knockers are to be found; your job is to promote unity.
- Don’t make enemies unnecessarily and for trivial reasons. If you are any good, you will make plenty of them on matters of straight honesty and public policy, and you need all the support you can get.
From Gifford Pinchot Lectures at the Yale Forest School (1910-1920).