What Kind of Work Makes People Happy?

Pinning a pattern

Last week, as Natalie and I pinned our patterns, cut out fabric & stitched cloth into skirts, I couldn’t help thinking about the inspiring story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, who I just read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).

Louis and Regina Borgenicht immigrated to the United States from Galicia in 1889.  Eventually becoming a prosperous clothing manufacturer in Brooklyn, Louis began by researching his market.  For four days, he carried around a small notebook and noted down what people were wearing and what was available in shop windows.  On the final day, he saw a half dozen girls playing hopscotch.  “One of the girls was wearing a tiny embroidered apron over her dress, cut low in the front with a tie in the back, and it struck him, suddenly, that in his previous days of relentlessly inventorying the clothing shops of the Lower East Side, he had never seen one of those aprons for sale.”

He went home, told Regina and they agreed that they would try sewing and selling 40 aprons.  The next morning, Louis purchased the fabric, returned home, and Regina began sewing.  (They had one old sewing machine.) When Regina went to bed at midnight, Louis sewed.  At dawn, Regina got up and cut buttonholes and added buttons.  By ten, Louis was out on Hester Street selling the aprons.  By one o’clock, he had sold all forty.

As Natalie and I cut out our fabric and began sewing our skirts, we thought of the Borgenichts and marveled at their creativity, industriousness, and energy.  Amazing!

As Malcolm Gladwell points out, Louis and Regina had to work very hard for many years, but they were happy.  “Louis was his own boss.  He was responsible for his own decisions and direction.  His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination.  And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward: the longer he and Regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day on the streets.”

Thus, Galdwell talks about the three qualities work has to have if it is to be satisfying:  autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.  “It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy.  It is whether our work fulfills us.  Work that fulfills the three criteria listed above is meaningful.”

Isn’t it the same with learning?

Jacqueline, wonderful teacher at F&S Fabrics



  • Grandmama

    As a little girl and a grown up girl I remember all the women sewing for me that I grew up with–those fittings and pinnings as they fussed around me and occasionally I got pricked with one of those straight pins as they made the fit just right (and was told to ‘hold still’ numerous times) but still there needed to be a little room for growth. After the pinning was the basting stage for a fitting and finally the sewing machine put in the final stitches to bring those cut-out pieces of colorful material into the dress pictured on the pattern’s envelope. My selection was taken from catalogues found in department stores and I recall how those dress pattern catalogues were mighty cumbersome when you had three or four to go through, plus there was a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of McCalls vs Simplicity and others (don’t remember exactly) but some patterns ran large etc and others might have a quirky bit about them according to my mother or grandmother.
    I am dying to hear and ‘SEE’ the skirts you made.

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