Cory Clark is a Moral and Political Psychologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. She does research in Social Cognition, Political Psychology, Moral Psychology, and Metascience. Clark is the co-host in the podcast Psyphilopod, where they discuss truthful and highly insightful conversations on psychology, philosophy, politics, and academic culture.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Bath, Ohio, the birthplace of the serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, and sometimes home of the greatest basketball player of all time, LeBron James (yeah, I said it). I have four siblings; my dad continued his education (a Ph.D. in psychology, like me) through my early teens while working one full time and two part-time jobs, and my mom did not go back to work until my early teens. So, although my parents are reasonably well-off now, my childhood was… let’s say frugal. We heated our house with a wood-burning stove, so I often hauled trees and chopped wood on weekends.
And because I was rarely given money for non-essentials, I have worked almost my entire life. I believe I have had at least one or two steady gigs at a time since age 10 when I first started babysitting and hosting birthday parties at a gymnastics gym. I’ve also been a lifeguard, a barista, a ham displayer (yep, just what it sounds like), a cashier, a carrot peeler, a caterer, and a cookie scooper—all before age 21.
I am not sure whether these experiences had any causal influence, but I respect hard work and do not view long hours as a tragedy or something to be pitied. It means you are providing for yourself and your family and contributing something important to broader society. I think all work deserves respect and admiration, regardless of whether you are a surgeon, a comedian, a Taco Bell artisan, a gardener, a mother, a writer, whatever. Everyone who contributes deserves admiration and should feel proud.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Maybe there are more and less productive ways to spend leisure time. Practicing a skill, reading something new, having a new experience, spending time with family and friends, and exercising help you grow and develop as a person. Watching the entire series of Seinfeld for the 42nd time is not so productive (although it is probably productive the first few times).
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Any recommendation that is presumed to apply universally. Different people work in different ways, and you really need to figure out how to structure your day and your environment in ways that bring out the best in you. For example, (pre-COVID) I spent a lot of time working in coffee shops and restaurants. The worry that someone might peek over my shoulder and see me wasting time on Twitter helped me stay on task. Others might find such environments too loud or distracting.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I’ve gone through two “dark” periods in my life. Both resulted from mistakes I made, and both were very painful and costly. I’ve learned that the social withdrawal and self-pity that almost inevitably accompanies shame does not right any wrongs and only generates more negativity in the world. Even if you don’t forgive yourself, you have to try to be productive and live your best life because that is most beneficial to others around you.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
The boring but true answer is putting in the work. The more time you put in, the more productive you will be. Although there are rare exceptions of very successful people who probably did not work that much or that hard, most successful people are successful because they bust their asses. There is no substitute for putting in the time.
What is your morning routine?
I prioritize getting enough sleep (for me, 8-9 hours) over waking up at a particular time, so I usually set the alarm for about 8.5 hours after whenever I go to bed. I am slow to boot up in the morning, so I stay in bed for about a half-hour after I wake, reading the news, checking Twitter, and responding to any urgent emails. Then I spend about an hour on my first cup of coffee dealing with other emails and knocking out any quick/minor tasks on my to-do list. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day: a piece of grilled sourdough, an egg, two pieces of veggie “bacon,” mixed berries, dark chocolate, and more coffee (I don’t know if antioxidants actually matter, but if they do, I’ve got that covered!). I save work that requires deep concentration after breakfast (and two cups of coffee).
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Trying to keep time costs in line with benefits. Time spent on one task is the time taken away from another, and so spending an excessive amount of time perfecting some menial task is not a valuable use of time. For example, I receive a lot of emails from people who want to bounce ideas or questions off of me, and I used to labor over these emails, perfecting my grammar or improving my prose. But this turned emails into quite a laborious task so I would end up not having time to respond at all. Sometimes (near) perfection is important, but often it is not, and it is not worth the time cost for little added benefit.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I keep a very detailed calendar planned out usually about a week in advance. I rarely get everything done that I hope to, but it helps me see which tasks can be put off another day or two and which really need to be done ASAP to avoid delaying progress on other tasks or slowing down colleagues. I also try to treat deadlines as firm and non-negotiable. Believing something MUST get done today motivates me to actually get that thing done today.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
ALL THE PHILOSOPHY. Philosophy teaches you how to play with ideas, how to contemplate hypotheses earnestly even without accepting them, and how to isolate descriptive claims from normative implications. This, I think, has made me a better scientist. Science training alone can cause a trigger-happy rejection of interesting ideas that might not be 100% correct or 100% comfortable, but that contain useful information or perspectives. Reading philosophy teaches a person to appreciate and learn from imperfect information.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“The best revenge is living well” by Jerry Seinfeld circa 1991 (or, if you are a classicalist, “Living well is the best revenge” by George Herbert circa 1651). If you work in a competitive field, odds are at some point someone will treat you unfairly or try to obstruct your ability to succeed. I believe that in most cases, you are better off just focusing on yourself and continuing to do the best work you can do. If you stoop to their level to retaliate, you only provide them a justification for their mistreatment of you and make yourself look bad to third party observers. In the long run, you will go further if you focus your efforts on improving your own work rather than tearing other people down.