How to Do Meaningful Work that Matters

Autonomy, complexity, and a clear relationship between effort and reward

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, 234 of New York City’s 241 clothing factories were owned by Jews with production worth $55 million annually.  By 1900, the industry grossed over $100 million a year and employed 45,000 people. By 1913, there were over 16,000 small-size factories, most with 10 or fewer sewing machines, and over 300,000 employees.

Louis Borgenicht

One estimate is that 85% of garment industry workers were Jewish immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe. The repetitive cutting and sewing did not require education or a new language. This became the primary income source for Jewish immigrants.

Among all the garment manufacturers in New York, the story of one Jewish immigrant stood out. This man, who had come to the U.S. with nothing but his bare hands, established a new line which in 20 years developed into a significant industry.

Building a business empire with bare hands

In 1888, Louis Borgenicht and his wife, Regina sailed for America from Poland. Starting out in an eight-dollar-a-week apartment on Eldridge Street, Louis began by selling herrings. But they soon realized that selling herrings on the street would never lead to a constructive business. Soon, he was buying and selling whatever he could lay his hands on.

As Regina gave birth to a second child, a daughter, Loius’s urgency grew. He now had four mouths to feed. Just as he was about to give up hope, Louis noticed a little Slavic girl wearing an apron utterly common in central Europe but still unknown in America. This prompted him to buy 150 yards of material on Hester Street. He then immediately manufactured forty children’s’ aprons in one day, with the help of his wife.

The day after Louis and Regina sold out their first lot of forty aprons, Louis then bought enough cloth to make another ten dozen aprons, with his and Regina’s lifesaving of $125. Day and night, he and Regina cut and sewed. They sold all ten dozen in two days.

Before long, Louis and his wife opened a children’s clothing store on Sheriff Street and lived in its back rooms by investing his profit in gingham and white goods. As soon as they could afford to, a few girls were hired to work on machines manufacturing children’s’ dresses.

But Louis was far from satisfied. “I wanted to grow,” he recalled, “to employ crowds of people, and here I was dealing with customers who wanted one dress or two petticoats. At night I lay awake and thought of my frustration.”

Louis then decided to expand his manufacturing business beyond aprons. With the help of his wife, he came up with some high-quality samples of wash dresses, silks, and woolens for his “old” customers. He also realized that his only chance to undercut bigger firms was to convince the wholesaler to sell cloth to him directly, and so he negotiated with the imperious Yankee with his halting English.

What makes our work meaningful

It was a lesson of the modern economy.  Borgenicht was getting in his eighteen-hour days. He was learning manufacturing, market research, and negotiations. He was spending all his time in the industry and culture to understand new fashion trends.

When Borgenicht came home at night, he may have been tired and overwhelmed, but he was alive. Louis wrote his memoir and published IT in 1942, the year he died, entitled The Happiest Man.

How could a man with a life like this consider himself the happiest man?

No, Louis didn't consider himself happy only after he made a big break in the garment industry. He felt alive and motivated for his work even during the struggles. He was always the happiest man, during the entire journey.

The confusion occurs merely because most of us mistake what it is that makes our work meaningful. Experts talk about how our income affects our satisfaction with our work, but most entrepreneurs started out by clocking in long hours of work with little or no income. And there are countless examples of people feeling miserable even when they are making a good income from their job.

Everything was factored into the equation – the relationship between employers and employees, the work culture, the time of rest we have, and more. As it turns out, the three most important qualities that make our work meaningful, agreed on by most professionals and creatives, are:

1. Autonomy

It’s crucial to have a good level of authority and a clear amount of responsibility for your work. Forcing yourself or your employees to work harder will never work if there is no freedom provided for you or them to own the work.

That’s why the current model of extrinsic motivation in the workforce failed miserably. This is the tendency to force people to work with a sweeter carrot or a sharper knife.

2. Complexity

If the deal is to do nothing for five years for a million dollars, most people will go insane before they get their hands on the money.

Overly simple and easy work will break us just like overly difficult work. For us to consider our work as something that matters, it has to come with the right balance of complexity. It needs to make us feel challenged and engaged at the same time.

3. Clear connection between effort and reward

This part is easily understood by most people. The connection between the input—time, energy, money—and the reward—money, reputation, recognition—has to be clear and at least predictable. No one wants to spend their entire life working on something that neither makes them money or makes them feel good.

When we see our work as something meaningful, it becomes effortless for us to feel motivated and to want to hustle harder for it. Hard work is a prison sentence only if the work has no meaning to you. Once it does, it becomes a thing that drives you forward without you noticing.

Do work that matters

It’s not strange that Louis Borgenicht considered himself as the happiest man. Because during A tough time for a Jewish immigrant to make a good life for himself in the promised land of America, Borgenicht had been doing what was considered meaningful work for him.

He was his own boss. He had the authority and was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex and challenging. There was no proven roadmap, he had to figure out the way himself, and that engaged his mind and imagination. Last but not least, there was a relationship between effort and reward. The longer he and Regina put in the work, the more money they made the next day. The more he asked himself tough questions to generate breakthroughs for his business, the more successful he was.

Autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are the three qualities that work must have to be meaningful and satisfying. It’s not money that makes us happy. It’s whether our work matters to us.


  1. This article was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell. I first read the story of Louis Borgenicht and the concept of meaningful work in one of his bestselling books Outliers.

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