What do we talk about when we talk about work?

Its Indo-European root “werg” comes to us from the Greek “ergon,” which indicates deed or action without punishment. In Latin “urgere,” means to press, bear down or compel. In Old English, we find “wracan,” which we use today when we talk about wreaking havoc. Do these origins shadow us? Perhaps the first step in taking work into the future and resetting the ignition button is to refashion our use of the word.

Work and Ignition

Work that is on the other side of punishment, or work under duress,—none of these definitions is employee-centred and none take into account the idea of meaningful work. One aspect of the word “work,” in which something is wrought, contains the seeds of a more fruitful understanding of the term. If we understand work as making something or fashioning something, we are more in line with how ignition operates and how it relates to meaningful work. Ignition, that spark that generates meaning, is a catalyst for meaningful work, something that has repercussions on our ability to envision the future of work.

Let’s take a look at our felt-sense about ignition. There’s an uplift when we think about a spark causing something to move forward. In the human personality, this spark has an even greater function. Ignition relates to a person’s sense of their deepest calling, an experience of ultimate meaning.


• There’s no room for ignition in business.
Response: This argument is based on outdated thinking about business. Remember that millions of employees resigned in droves during the Great Resignation, as many as four million people in one week, more than once.
• We have no skills set in developing ignition.
Response: Ignition is a process, something that can be practiced in the way musicians practice scales. Different reflections on meaningfulness, creativity, and self-direction, all play a part in developing ignition.
• We have no time.
Response: Our ideas about time shape our experience of it. With inherited thought patterns operating in the back of our mind, we conform to old ideas of time. Do we have time to replace employees and train new ones on a scale we haven’t seen before?

Why Ignition?

The Irish poet David Whyte points us toward meaning in an interesting way. Whyte has described his poetry and philosophy as having to do with “the conversational nature of reality.” His book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, has garnered a phenomenal readership in the States. He writes, “All of your ability to hold the conversations you were made for relies entirely on your ability to hold radical attention to your intention. And without that radical attention, nothing much will happen at the frontier of your being.”

We could rephrase that ending to read, “And without that radical attention, nothing much will happen at the frontier of business.” To some extent, of course, meaningfulness is subjective. However, when there is a radical disconnect between meaning in the personal sphere and in the world of business, both the employee and the enterprise suffer. Work reverts back to its old meaning of compulsion. When we are faced with a future that is unmapped, we need the vision, the engagement, and the commitment of the employee. This engagement comes not from benefit packages, bonuses or greater flexibility. This engagement comes from radical attention to our deepest expression of what we intend to do, both as a human being and as a business.


Once ignition, or deep meaningfulness, is cultivated, a resonance can occur of benefit to the employee and company. If two pianos in the same room are both tuned to the same key, one note depressed on the first piano will automatically cause the other piano to sound that same note. Ignition will resonate between employees and the company, enhancing the performance of both in surprising ways. Ignition can open up new avenues for exploring financial prosperity, while at the same time contributing to meaningful work, which in turn increases employee retention.
The next challenge is to maintain that resonance.

If we think back to the days of analogue radio, (not digital), we have an apt example of what maintaining resonance looks like. If you tried to tune to a station, and noise and static came in, and only a faint signal, you wouldn’t be able to get to that station. To maintain a strong signal is an image for developing and maintaining ignition, to be able to sustain the signal or the deep sense of meaningfulness despite the noise in the background. There’s so much noise distracting our attention. If the signal isn’t stronger than the noise, you’ll lose the signal, which means we lose resonance, since we build resonance on the signal.

Deep Practice

A sincere commitment to our ignition needs buttressing, like the cathedrals of old. We like to say this buttressing includes developing the heart, the mind and the will. This ongoing development will help create a strong degree of mastery, necessary to build and maintain a strong signal, or as David Whyte puts it, to build and maintain radical attention to your intention. One way of developing this mastery is through deep practice.
In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle identifies four aspects of deep practice. The first is to get the global picture of what you’re shooting for, to have an overview of what you’re striving to master, whether it’s a discipline, a field, or something in the arts. Secondly, “chunk it down,” or divide the skill into the smallest of chunks. Observe, judge, self-regulate. Thirdly, repeat. “Bring this repetition to the sweet spot of the highest edge of your capability.” And finally, learn to feel when it’s right.

Deep practice requires sustained effort. And it is what we are calling ignition that will generate and maintain that mastery. Employees who have an ignition in place and are continually developing it, reflecting on it, adapting and changing accordingly, are tremendous assets in a company. The question is this: Is the company ready for them? Research suggests that while companies acknowledge that articulating their purpose, vision and mission is critical for employee engagement, many companies have not fully articulated their intention, which we call their ‘why behind their why’. And even if it is articulated, it’s often not fully part of the company culture.

One of the most inspiring developmental aspects we’ve seen by combining ignition and deep practice is that it is not a static exercise. The more deeply you understand what you’re called to do, and then act accordingly, over time you become the person you need to be in order to put that deep calling into action in our world. As a leader, for example, you may well develop more magnetism or charisma, particularly needed in your domain to put your company’s mission into play. Deep ignition will facilitate your becoming the person you need to be for your vision to become real. As your vision grows and develops, so too will you as the leader grow and develop. Likewise, the employees will be engaged in the same process, creating a powerful resonance in the company where missions align and mastery is being developed to actualise the ever-developing why behind the company’s why, translating into unexpected opportunities for the company’s growth.


When an employee’s deepest motivation resonates with the deepest motivation of an employer, both are engaged in what we call the great uplift, where together the company and employee prosper. Work then remains safely in the sphere of fashioning, without compulsion. The Great Ignition, which addressed meaningfulness so deeply in business, can be seen as an antidote for the Great Resignation in both senses of the term. First, we will succeed in employee retention. Secondly, we’ll also avoid that other kind of resignation, where employees are unenthusiastic, dutiful and disengaged. As CEOs and leaders, we can overcome our reliance on past patterns and look toward developing ignition as a way to move more powerfully and more soulfully into the future.

CEO and Co-Founder at HuPerson Project | + posts

Jill Taylor has devoted her career to fostering unique methods of transformation for individuals, teams and companies. She co-founded The Taylor Group with her mother, Carolyn Taylor, at the forefront of wellness and leadership, helping clients understand the nature of the changes confronting them and how to become new inside those changes. Then as CEO of Burgerville, Jill helped the company navigate COVID with strategic flexibility while strengthening local economies by working with local farmers to the benefit of all.

Together with Shelly Cooper and Daniel Goodenough, in 2023, Jill co-founded the HuPerson Project to transform a leader’s awareness and presence, and to open a new structure of thinking needed to navigate the world emerging. Jill’s changemaker spirit was recently recognized as one of Portland, Oregon’s most influential women by the Portland Business Journal.