How Hope Theory Helps You To Achieve Your Goals

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

This may sound like good advice, but research suggests this is not true.

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.

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. This trait, measured over six years, consistently predicted academic success.

What do you think they were measuring? Intelligence? Positive values? High self-esteem? Nope. Synder and his team were researching the phenomenon called hope.

What is hope?

Hope is important but hard to define.

According to Rick Synder, psychological hope requires 3 essential factors:

  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. You need to be clear about what mountain to climb if you want to reach the summit. 

Will-Power is about grit and determination. It’s an internal thing. People who are internally motivated and demonstrate a can-do attitude, consistently outperform less motivated peers. Belief is important to grow Will-Power. As people experience small wins in life, belief and self-esteem grows. They become more confident in their ability to tackle 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 a mindset and a skill-set that can be learnt with practice, transforming even a laggard into a productivity legend!

My Car Has Broken Down

Let me give you a scenario to help you see 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 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: Damn, 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: You ask the farmer for a lift to the main road in order to hitch-hike.
    Barrier 4: You’re now visible 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 to the wedding. It was a close call, but you made it because of Way-Power.

The Way To Hope

Way-Power is the foundation of strategic thinking. It’s the ability to think “if this happens, then I can do that.” Without Way-Power, people struggle to have hope because they cannot find a way forward to achieve their goals.

Described in the research as ‘pathways thinking’, this mindset enables people to:

  • Think of multiple ways to reach a goal; not just plan A or B, but plan A, B, C, D and E;
  • Switch strategies whenever they hit a setback or obstacle, as opposed to giving up, or trying harder to get better results from the same 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 an event, yet there are hundreds of real-life situations where Way-Power is valuable.

  • A 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 informs you that you’re heart is a ticking time-bomb. You need to lose weight, eat better and work less. 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 situations across work and life. The more novel a problem, the more important it is to practice pathways thinking. To consistently experience hope, we need to clarify our goals, be internally motivated, and employ a number of different approaches to get things done. 

If At First You Don’t Succeed …

We need a different mantra:

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

Next time you feel stuck in a rut, change your thinking. Identify new solutions. Break things down. Try a new approach, reassess, and if needed, try something different again. Eventually you will reach your goal.  

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


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.

Synder, C.R. (2005). Teaching: The Lessons of Hope Theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24 (1) 72-84.

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.

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.