Carl Djerassi, a Self-Defined Intellectual Polygamist
It has become difficult to imagine love-making without the Pill or surviving allergies without antihistamines—both the creations of Carl Djerassi.
Djerassi emigrated from Austria to America after Anschluss and passed away in early 2015, going down in history known for his invention of the oral contraceptive pill, along with other contributions in the fields different from his first love, chemistry. Reinventing himself from a chemist to writer, art collector, and philanthropist, he used these different occupations as opportunities to excel in arenas that are only seemingly dissimilar to chemistry with its logic and experimentation – but were, for him, united by a common denominator of his intellect, effortlessly ascending on a spiral of perfecting the world.
What were the drivers behind his serially self-redefined being? His book From the Pill to the Pen explains his life – ambitious, articulate, but narcissism-free. Defining himself as an “intellectual polygamist”, Djerassi defended this metaphoric term saying that “serious polygamy” treats every woman as God-given wife—and this is exactly how he’s treated all his intellectual pursuits/occupations—and achieved extraordinary results every time. That’s what intellectual polygamists do.
I have nothing against the term “intellectual polygamist” except that it sounds sexist; additional amplification can correct it. Research for my upcoming book found quite a few women immigrants with creativity extending into multiple fields, either voluntarily, driven by curiosity and self-expression, or out of their need to adapt to a foreign land.
Olga Perry, a female centerpiece of immigrant creativity gone wild, is an excellent example of intellectual polygamy.
She’s an internationally recognized artist with the high awards for sculpture, painting and photography. “I make art because I must,” she said. “It’s a need, an obsession, an addiction.” Born in Russia, she’s been through colorful career changes: an engineer, OB/GYN doctor holding a Ph.D., major of the Russian Army, and business owner. But these successes didn’t satisfy her intellectual-emotional thirst as she felt fed up with Russian institutions controlling her free spirit. In her 40’s, she jumped across the oceans and cultures, a single mom with her daughter, two suitcases and little English.
Life in the US changed with the speed of her language acquisition: from baby-sitter, department store cashier, waitress, telemarketer, corporate manager – to CFO of a renewable energy corporation, she’s done it all. Then came the art. It became her new passion. After only a year of drawing and sculpting in art school she made it big time too, a star fulfilling her lifelong dream to be an artist.
Olga’s art – reflecting the prowess of her brilliant intellect, logic of the scientist, distinctive vision, and global experience – shows us what the artistic fusion of Renaissance-like professional transitions, cultures, and philosophies can harvest. Art in various media, even parody cook-and-talk shows on her video channel, are all expressions of her talent. Creativity-wise, she equals Carl Djerassi himself!
Five Things We Learned
Here’s my 5 cents worth on connecting the dots between our amazingly creative fellow-citizens and our own progress as individuals and society:
- Creativity’s integrated in immigrants’ nature
Solid research on creativity explains why immigrants can see things through several filters, unlike those native-born. In addition to the business case for immigrant creativity I’ve made before, we need to remember that creativity may also be driven by powerful self-expression in unrelated fields (e.g., Athena Tacha, from Greece, is an outstanding landscape artist, sculptor, and author of conceptual/self-analytical studies of aging).
- Contrary to popular belief that to be a success we need to stick to one profession, intellectual polygamists prove otherwise
There’s more to creativity than cross-cultural vision – there’s a phenomenon of cross-professional vision. It happens when people change professions/occupations (and immigrants often do so out of necessity): the previous know-how delivers an added perspective/vision, which can turn into a huge advantage. Simply put, their fresh vision removes “professional blinders,” a limiting factor for innovating. Thus, Lana Kim has reinvented herself from a Macy’s super-salesperson, to stockbroker, to PR firm director, to author/speaker and radio talk-show host; Anne-Sophie Gueguen rose from European Commission manager to French-American Academy founder; Paulina Porizkova evolved from supermodel and actress to author/blogger, Izabella Miko developed from ballerina and actress to movie producer, etc. They’ve been willing – or had to – reinvent selves. The result? Their wonderful creativity, like a magic wand, enriched every profession they applied it to.
- Intellectual curiosity can lead to intellectual polygamy
A new orthodoxy, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key to unlocking genius—and this is probably true. However, intellectual polygamists such as Carl Djerassi and Olga Perry could re-focus, get re-obsessed by new ideas/professions, and succeed in various fields. In general, immigrants are more likely to turn intellectual polygamists because many just need to do things entirely different from what they’ve done back home.
- Immigrants contribute big-time to America’s well-being and culture
A risk gene is part of all immigrants’ DNA: it’s brought them to America to unleash their potential—and they’re fearlessly pioneering all things new. Paraphrasing Einstein, immigrants enter the society/organization/team where certain things have been deemed impossible – and their unawareness makes them search for solutions—and break new grounds! The names of Arianna Huffington, Indra Nooyi, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer speak for themselves.
- America needs to sponsor creative immigrants officially
We hold it as universal truth that America, the great nation of former immigrants, can benefit from more new blood, the talent ready to help sustain its global competitiveness.
Learning is Progressing
As the worldwide migration accelerates year after year, the nations who open their golden doors to inventive immigrants will progress the most. We, the people, do want America to continue being No.1. Unfortunately, our Congressmen, in their supposed infinite wisdom, stay stuck in their stale bipartisan game, playing from the position of strength, and bargaining endlessly over the immigration reform. History will not forgive them. And the American people shouldn’t either.