5 Ways to Get What You Want, on Your Terms

... and why you should never forget to celebrate.

Posted Jul 12, 2016

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

We’d all like to be able to get what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. Of course, reality can get in the way, and sheer determination doesn’t always lead to our desired goals.

However, according to one view, if you have enough “grit,” a stick-to-itiveness in your personality, you can realize your ambitions. Want to get that college degree in just three years? Decide that you’re going to do it by studying hard and diligently. Hoping to get to know that stranger across a crowded room? Throw your energy into making this your goal and you might soon be looking at real estate listings for a new love nest together.

According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit is a combination of two elements—passion and perseverance. Grit will get you from here to there, no matter where here or there happen to be. For example, grit is often the key to success in the workplace. It's an appealing notion that fits with the can-do mentality so prevalent in Western culture.

But before you jump on the grit bandwagon, consider this warning: In a review of the research on grit as a personality construct, Iowa State University psychologists Marcus Credé and Michael Tynan, along with University of Alabama psychologist Peter Harms (June 2016), conclude that grit is just another version of the personality trait of conscientiousness. In their meta-analysis of the literature (“Much Ado about Grit"), Credé and his co-authors argue that helping people systematically become grittier won’t necessarily improve their performance.

The critics believe that grit enthusiasts may fall prey to what’s known as the jangle fallacy, or the idea that “two things are different simply because they have different names” (p. 4). If you worry that there’s too much psychological jargon in the world, you can almost certainly relate to this notion. If grit is just perseverance with a twist, why not just keep calling call it perseverance? We have measures for this, and decades of research evidence to provide insight into its nuances. Credé and his coauthors point out that the two most relevant aspects of conscientiousness—self-discipline and achievement—are both part of the standard personality inventory measuring the Five Factor traits and are well understood.

What about the idea that because grit can help in the workplace, we should train people to become grittier? Credé et al. find only limited evidence that such interventions are worth the effort. You might be able to teach college students to become more persistent and passionate, or you could invest your training dollars into teaching them how to organize their time and study more effectively.

Despite the debatable ado about grit, what can you learn about using the trait—or something like it—to get what you want? These five tips should help:

  1. Take a page from the grit playbook. 

    If passion and perseverance can help you reach your goals at least some of the time, why not put them to work? The data don’t completely support the grit mentality, but you can't lose by seeing if it might work for you. 
  2. Gauge the situation to determine whether the time is right.

    In a previous blog post, I looked at nine ways to ask for what you want to increase the likelihood that you'll get it. When getting what you want involves other people, it’s key to know how to approach them so that they’re willing to help. This is perhaps why grit doesn’t always work: Someone else may be even more passionate and persevering than you, or just not ready to give way to you.
  3. Set realistic, achievable but incremental goals.

    In addition to your mental fortitude, you also need the ability to reach your goals. Not everyone can run a marathon, be a winner on Jeopardy!, or even cook perfect scrambled eggs. Experiment with taking your current level of ability to the next step. If you don’t get there, you’ll know you need to scale back a bit.
  4. Decide whether you actually want what you think you do.

    The expression “Be careful what you wish for” is worth pondering: You may think you’d be much, much, happier if you moved out, because your roommate (or spouse or partner or sibling) is making life difficult. Before you take action, consider what that alternative would really be like. See if you can truly imagine yourself being happier living somewhere new instead of where you are now.
  5. Take pride and pleasure in what you accomplish.

    It’s a great feeling to achieve a goal. When you do, rather than start to dream about your next goal right away, step back and admire the result. It may even be worth taking a breather, depending on how you had to work for it, just to recharge.

Whether it’s a college degree, a date with an attractive stranger, or a home renovation project, once you see what you're able to accomplish you’ll feel even more prepared the next time you take on the world. Fulfillment doesn’t depend on always reaching your goals; as long as you usually manage to do so, the payoff will make it all worthwhile.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.


Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2016). Much Ado About Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, doi:10.1037/pspp0000102

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016