Here’s an example.
A teacher once told Jo Malone that she wouldn’t make anything out of her life. Malone dropped out of school at the age of 15 (she had dyslexia, which was largely misunderstood). Her teacher would be proven wrong. Malone had two qualities that her teacher hadn’t appreciated: passion and creativity.
Today, Jo Malone is the name the behind a fragrance empire. The British perfumer and entrepreneur launched Jo Malone London from her kitchen table and sold it to Estee Lauder in 1998 (she continued as creative director until 2006). Although the terms of the sale were not disclosed, the millions were enough to free her from work for the rest of her life.
But passion is not work. Passion is a calling and it would soon call her back.
Recently, Malone and I were among the invited guest authors at a book festival in Dubai. As we enjoyed a traditional Arabic feast, Malone expanded on the story that she wrote in her autobiography, Jo Malone: My Story.
Here are two lessons she taught me:
1. You might leave your passion, but it doesn’t leave you
Passion is more than a passing interest. It’s something that’s core to your identity–you might leave it, but it doesn’t leave you.
Malone discovered an acute sense of smell while helping her mother who worked for a skincare clinic. Malone recalls childhood memories in scent: “the damp wood of the garden shed” and “the linseed oil and turpentine scent from dad’s paintings,”
She launched her own brand in 1988, mixing ingredients at her kitchen table with “four plastic jugs and two saucepans.” She had twelve clients who bought her homemade skin creams.
The scent–Lime Basil and Mandarin–put her on the map. A random memory of lime-chocolate sweets as a kid triggered her creativity. One memory lead to another. Dinner at an Italian restaurant conjured up the smell of basil. The herb made her think of summer and summer of oranges. But oranges weren’t sweet enough–mandarins were the ticket.
Malone believes that following one’s passion–wherever it may lead–ultimately releases creative energy. Economist and popular TED speaker, Dr. Larry Smith, agrees. “If you want to achieve a great career and you don’t have passion you’ll fail,” Smith once told me. “I defy anyone to be innovative in a field they really don’t care about.”
2. Remarkable people are obsessed with an idea
Malone uses the word “obsession” to describe her enthusiasm. She’s on to something.
I once asked Michael Moritz, a Google investor, about what he looks for in an entrepreneur. Passion, he told me. But when I asked Moritz to define it, he said, “The people who do remarkable things are completely captivated by an obsession that they simply cannot imagine conducting their life without…they have a calling that tugs at their emotions.”
Obsessions don’t leave you. Malone sold Jo Malone London to Estee Lauder and stayed on as creative director–until she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2003. She survived, but when she returned to the company one year later, she had temporarily lost her sense of smell and her passion–not for fragrance, but for the role.
The separation contract prevented Malone from re-entering the industry for five years. She wasn’t even allowed to buy lip gloss at a makeup counter. She soon discovered that “the hunger and spirit” never left her.
In 2011 Malone launched a new brand that sells fragrances in store and online: Jo Loves. 20 years removed from her first startup, she found herself back in a kitchen, doing what she loved–mixing and matching scents to capture the emotions she feels.
Malone needed a comeback fragrance. On vacation she brought along a pomelo note, “a lone drumbeat, awaiting the rest of the orchestra to create the symphony.” She decided to capture a scent that would evoke “a clean, crisp simple picture of a beachy, sun-kissed landscape.” A walk on the beach triggered Jo Loves’ No.1 fragrance: Pomelo
The lesson Malone discovered on a Caribbean beach: Invite inspiration. Keep the door open to creativity. If you’re truly passionate about your field, creativity will manifest itself and “whisper to you in the most unexpected forms.”
Whether your chosen field is beauty or big data, your ability to be more innovative than your competitors will set you apart. Some might dismiss ‘passion’ as a nice-to-have quality, but not essential. Malone, Moritz, Dr. Smith, and many leading entrepreneurs would strongly disagree. Passion is the foundation of success.
How do you find it? As Malone says, when you’re more driven by your idea than how much money you’ll make, you’ll be on the right path.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.