The Most Important (Countercultural) Steps for Making 2021 a Success

January 4, 2021 9:00 am Published by
Learn how to make 2021 a success | Appreciation at Work with Dr. Paul White

Individuals who do well in life commonly utilize four key skills to help their lives move forward in a healthy direction. That is, people who achieve healthy personal goals tend to incorporate the same tools to assist them in moving toward their aspirations. 

Unfortunately, some of these tools are not valued or embraced in our culture, which makes consistently utilizing them more difficult. Yes, believe it or not, we need to acknowledge that some of the beliefs and values of the majority Western culture are actually not helpful to us in living our lives well.

Four Important (but often Countercultural) Steps to Incorporate into Your Life

Lots of lists (many, research-based) exist which delineate the “ten most important characteristics of leaders,” or some similar list. These are typically helpful. However, just as we can identify critical nutrients needed to be physically healthy, some more foundational components are needed to make those nutrients usable and useful to our bodies. 

The same is true for our personal and career growth. There are many valuable and necessary skills needed to live a healthy, satisfying life, but some processes are truly foundational to support the development of these characteristics.

Incorporating these processes will provide the structure for you to move toward the person you desire to become in the coming year(s):

  1. Taking the time to reflect and learn from the past (both your own, and others’ previous experiences) vs. always looking forward, planning for the future. I, personally, am not very reflective by nature and I tend to consistently look forward to “what’s next” rather than to stop, think, and learn from the experiences I’ve just gone through (both positive and negative ones). But learning from our life and the experiences of others is critical to gain an accurate bearing of “where we are,” which is necessary before we plan “where we want to go.” Truly successful people who, over time, achieve the goals important to them, make reflection a regular part of their lives.

  2. Focusing on long and steady effort over time vs. fast, flashy success. This is not just a Boomer talking. All types of research (on successful companies and organizations, leaders, athletes, musicians, inventors) clearly and repeatedly show that achieving one’s goals is far more likely to occur if you take a long, steady approach over time (including overcoming obstacles and “failures”) rather than expecting a quick success. Clearly, there are outliers (examples of those who don’t fit the normal pattern), but their occurrence is rare.

    Unfortunately, our culture and popular media tend to glamourize these unusual pathways, at the same time ignoring the tens of thousands of individuals who have tried the “get rich quick” approach and failed disastrously. Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” fable is not just a cute children’s story – it reflects a core truth embedded in life.
  1. Building habits (the most powerful tool for long-lasting change) vs. quick-fix, dramatic interventions. The American culture is notorious for looking for a “quick fix” to lifestyle challenges – a pill that will help us lose 50 pounds of fat while maintaining our same eating habits, or a “wonder” machine that accomplishes a full-body strength building exercise regimen in 5 minutes (or less!).

    But again, life experience, wisdom from the ages and reams of research — all suggest the same successful, life-changing process: taking steps to proactively build positive habits into our lives. Habits, in essence, are one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal to help us shape our lives to reflect what we desire. Exercising three times a week, reading a personal growth book every month, getting together regularly with friends – all are healthy habits which help us grow.
  1. Investing in healthy relationships vs. focusing primarily on task-completion. Healthy relationships yield huge benefits in our lives. Our society, especially in the work-place, is obsessed with getting things done (though in some areas, the focus is more on “looking like” you have achieved something rather than actually accomplishing the goal). At the daily life, moment-by-moment level this ultimately leads to a focus on tasks (which are an integral part of life).

    But we have largely ignored a core aspect of our humanness – we are social beings. We are born into families. We live in communities. Even our work lives intersect and are interdependent with others (customers, vendors, suppliers, those who make decisions in government). Additionally, we have innate needs to relate to others: to be cared for, to share life together, to give and serve others. If we only focus on task completion throughout our lives, life in the present will feel shallow, and in the future will lead to a sense of meaninglessness.  And in the meantime, when we encounter difficulties along the pathways of life, we have no one to help us or to offer assistance to. Investing time and energy into relationships (family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances) is critical to living a healthy life. We need one another.


Do yourself a favor.  Take a moment to visualize what you would like your life to be like a year from now. Think less about external circumstances and more about who you want to be as a person. Then put a time in your schedule this coming week to review the four core principles we’ve discussed and make some decisions that will help move you down the path of healthy living in the coming months. I assure you — the results will be amazing!


Since we live in community, please take a moment to share a lesson you’ve learned this year in the comments that could help another reader.

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January 4, 2021 9:00 am


  • Michael Heeren says:

    I have worked remotely for the past 3 years, but had a place where I worked which was my work social group. Since the pandemic started, that place has closed and I needed to rely more on my remote coworkers for my social interaction at work. In order to have what I needed/desired, I had to be the person that I wanted to interact with. I am now reaching out to my colleagues with those types of small talk interactions that made the in person environment special. To my amazement, those individuals seemed to enjoy it as well. I hope that this spreads throughout the university. Having non-related work interaction in my opinion is just as important as work related interaction. This helps to create and maintain friendships and bonds that most people desire. I know that I have felt more satisfaction since implementing this and others as well.

    • Paul White says:

      Michael, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. Both before the pandemic and especially during it, people have stressed to us, both in conversations we’ve had and as part of research that we’ve done, that maintaining connections is of special importance. We’re glad you found ways to reach out, stay in touch, and maintain the relationships you (and your colleagues) found value in. People have also told us that talking about things that aren’t work related is highly desirable. Thank you for sharing.

  • Doug Kruger says:

    I have learned that oftentimes it is up to me to maintain the healthy relationships that I depend on. Not everyone has the same urgency as I do in regards to these connections. Reaching out and re-connecting also makes me feel more “normal” and less isolated in my work world.

    I also verified that so much of what I do is based on having a positive connection with a team, peer or contact and that, with a little effort on my part, it can be maintained even in this crazy world.

    • Paul White says:

      Doug, glad you identified with with these suggestions. Reaching out is definitely worth the effort, especially during times like these. And we agree, connections in our personal and business lives are foundational to healthy and happy lives.

  • janet Gardner says:

    I needed this today. Thank you.

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