How Hope Theory Helps You To Achieve Your Goals

Hope Theory Synder
Photo: Ser Borakovskyy/

 If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Sounds like good advice.

Yet research suggests that it’s not.

The Secret To Academic Success

In 1996, psychology researcher Charles Synder set out to test a theory.

As a teacher and psychologist, Synder had spent a good part of his life observing the behaviour of students. What motivated them? Why did some students achieve success? Can academic success be predicted in advance?

So he conducted a long-term study[1].

Synder and his team assessed the personality profile of 213 university students, fresh out of high school, interviewing them to measure a particular psychological trait.

Six years later, he was curious to discover that academic success was directly related to the strength of this trait in his students.

What might this be? Intelligence? Positive values? High self-esteem?[2]

Surprisingly, Synder and his team were researching the phenomenon called hope.

What is hope?

Hope is important, yet can be hard to define.

According to Rick Synder, hope theory is based on 3 essential factors:[3]

  1. Goals
  2. Will-Power
  3. Way-Power

Let me explain in more detail.

Goal directed thinking is the ability to create clear and meaningful goals. People who are goal-oriented can clearly communicate where they are heading and are therefore more likely to fulfil their hopes and dreams.

Will-Power is about grit and determination. People who are internally motivated and who demonstrate a can-do attitude, consistently outperform their less motivated peers. Belief is important to grow Will-Power. As people experience small wins in life, their belief grows. They become more confident in their ability to achieve bigger goals, leading to more belief and greater hope.

Way-Power is somewhat harder to understand. It is the ability to imagine and trial different strategies to achieve a goal. It is both a mindset and a skill-set that can be learnt at any age — transforming even a laggard into a productivity legend!

My Car Has Broken Down!

Here’s a scenario to show how Way-Power works…

It’s the morning of your daughter’s wedding. The time is 9am and you’re set to walk her down the aisle in just 3 hours.

Yet there’s a problem…

Your car has broken down on a small country road (possibly out of petrol) and to make matters worse, you’re at least an hour drive away from your destination.

What do you do?

  • Strategy 1: Call a roadside mechanic to help you out.
    Barrier 1: Good idea, but you have no phone reception.
  • Strategy 2: Walk up a hill to find phone reception.
    Barrier 2: Bugger, it didn’t work!
  • Strategy 3: Walk to the nearest farmhouse to beg for petrol.
    Barrier 3: You score a jerry can full of petrol but the car still won’t start. Must be a mechanical problem!?!
  • Strategy 4: Beg farmer for a lift to the main road, in order to hitch-hike.
    Barrier 4: You’re at the freeway, but no cars are stopping to give you a lift. Maybe it’s because you’re wearing a tuxedo?
  • Strategy 5: You take off your jacket to look a bit less formal.
    Barrier 5: Well THAT didn’t work.
  • Strategy 6: This sounds crazy, but you’re gonna try standing in the middle of the freeway to physically stop a car.

Jackpot! You looked so desperate that someone gave you a lift all the way to the wedding. You might even have time to take a few pre-wedding photo’s!

The Way To Hope

Without Way-Power, people struggle to have hope because they cannot find a way to achieve their goals.

Described in the research as ‘pathways thinking’, this mindset enables you to:[4]

  • Imagine multiple ways to reach a goal (not just plan A or B, but plan A, B, C, D & E thinking);
  • Switch strategies whenever you hit a setback or obstacle (as opposed to giving up, or trying harder to seek a new result with the same old strategy).
  • Breakdown big stuff into small steps (so it’s not so overwhelming).

Essentially, Way-Power allows you to think outside the box, form multiple strategies and map out a pathway to reach your goals.

Way Power In Real-Life

Not many of us have to hitch-hike to our daughter’s big day, yet there are hundreds of real-life situations where Way-Power is essential.

For example:

  • A key staff member resigned from your team and you can’t backfill for at least three months. How do you deliver your project on time, without killing yourself in the process?
  • Your doctor says that you’re a ticking time-bomb. You need to lose weight, eat better and work less hours. You know that she’s right but how do you do this?
  • You’re single and getting older. It’s hard to meet a nice (single) guy in the places you hang out. Maybe you need to rethink your approach?
  • You hate your job but don’t have any experience outside of your industry. You’d love to study, but how will you pay your mortgage? What options do you have?

We all face changing environments at work, at home, and in our relationships. The way to hope is to understand your options and then have the willingness to try new approaches to get things done.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

“Try, try again?” Maybe not. You see, motivation and effort is not enough to build hope.

Instead, we suggest a new mantra:

“If at first you don’t succeed, then try a different strategy!”

Why do some students outperform against their peers at university?

It’s because they have hope… a unique combination of goal-oriented thinking, internal motivation AND the ability to create multiple pathways and strategies to reach their goals.

What is one area of your life where you could make progress by switching strategies?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Curry, L.A., Synder, C.R., Cook, D.L, Ruby, B.C. & Rehm, M. (1997). Role of Hope Theory in Academic and Sport Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73 (6), 1257-1267.
  2. Synder, C.R. (2005). Teaching: The Lessons of Hope Theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24 (1) 72-84.
  3. Snyder, C.R, Harris, C., Anderson, J.R., Holleran, S.A., Irving, L.M., Sigmon, S.X., Shinobu, L.B., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., & Harney, P.(1991) The Will and the Ways: Development and Validation of an Individual-Differences Measure of Hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60 (4) 570-585.
  4. Snyder, C.R., Shorey, H.S., Cheavens, J., Pulvers, K.M., Adams, V.H., & Wiklund, C. (2002). Hope Theory and Academic Success in College. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94 (4), 820-826.