Freedom, independence, self-sufficiency: these are great and glorious concepts. We celebrate them this time of year, whether we process it that way or not, because they're so deeply ingrained in our image of America. We see ourselves as a nation of rugged individualists: seizing the bull by the horns, charting our course, walking alone into the forest with an ax slung over our shoulder.

Yes, it's a romantic notion. But it's not an accurate one. America is a nation of small, tight-knit communities and always has been. The more we cooperate, share, defer to others, and work together, the more successful we are. Today, as citizens, businesses, and civic leaders seek to come back from a public health and economic crisis, that spirit of community is more important than ever. It holds the key to our survival.

I've spent much of my career traveling from one American community to another. Some are bustling larger cities. Others are quiet small towns. What they all have in common is the burning desire to revitalize themselves: to become more vibrant, prosperous, livable, and loveable than they are right now. And as I've worked with these diverse groups of Americans, I've seen a theme emerge: Those communities that work together, win together.

When citizens and leaders come together, put their self-interest on the back burner and work as a team, things get done. When they don't, nothing gets done.

The more you think about the myth of the self-reliant early American, the less likely it seems. Our ancestors must have huddled together in small groups and worked to protect each other from a harsh and unforgiving environment. They must have joined forces, shared what they had, and leaned on each other when times were tough.

And on the larger stage, our nation's founders had to work together in a similar fashion to bring America into being. They were working toward independence as a new nation, but they had to rely on interdependence to get there. And as leaders of communities of all shapes and sizes and demographics and political persuasions, we can all learn a lot from them.

Set aside your self-interest and create something that works for everyone. Lots of different professions, industries and interests were present at the birth of America. Cabinet makers weren't fixated only on the wood industry, nor silversmiths on the silver trade. Everyone was fired up to contribute to something bigger than themselves. They bought into the overarching mission and weren't bogged down by endless debate over the short-term costs of their plan.

In other words, don't be overly concerned with your own wellbeing. Setting aside your own short-term best interests may accomplish far more for everyone in the long run. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, this includes you.

Don't let ideological differences stop you from achieving something tangible. Despite bitter disputes and differences of opinion, a group of people with little in common other than their shared determination that change was needed were able to get mobilized and get something done.

It's important to know what matters. Don't let petty disputes about how things should get done sabotage the greater task at hand.

Yes, early communities needed each other and that drove a lot of their interactions. We went through a period where we started to believe we didn't need each other and that clearly isn't true. We now realize that working together is the only way we can make our cities and towns thrive.

No one is saying America's founders were perfect. They were far from it, as we are. But one thing they got right was the knowledge that they needed to work together for a common cause. Teamwork is a powerful force. We couldn't have built a nation without it, and we can't build a better community without it either.

Quint Studer is the author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America and founder of Pensacola's Studer Community Institute. For more information, visit www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.