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Wiring for Resilience

How to navigate adversity

Today, we’ve asked Michael Baratta to share his Tip of the Week.

Rather than attend the neighborhood middle school, our daughter opted for one across town known for its rigorous academics—dubbed by locals as “the school for kids who love homework.” To her, homework was more of a concept than a practice. But hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Reality hit us hard. Schoolwork was overwhelming and became a constant source of conflict at home. Her grades plummeted, she thought teachers were “unfair,” and she attributed her failures to not being smart enough. A year after switching schools, she was convinced she would keep failing—and there was nothing she could do about it. 

How do people decide they can overcome adversity? Research indicates that we don’t learn to feel helpless. Instead, the opposite seems true: When our actions lead to success, we learn that we’re capable.

In practice, that means that when you fail, you should examine what you did (or didn’t do) that led to the failure. This process can profoundly shape your belief that you can influence outcomes.

At dinner one night after our daughter had sprained her wrist snowboarding, she said for the umpteenth time, “I want to change schools! I’m not as smart as all of those nerds.”

Pushing back, I responded, “Think about all the mistakes and crashes you’ve endured when learning to snowboard. It wasn’t easy, and you constantly made adjustments to your technique. Some worked, some didn’t. But look at where you are now, Miss Black Diamond.”

The conversation that night marked a turning point for us as parents. My wife and I realized that our approach to helping our daughter confront the difficulties of school was too focused on instilling good habits (completing assignments each night) and not enough on instilling cognitions (“I did poorly because I didn’t study enough or didn’t seek out help”). 

Our daughter’s mindset didn’t change overnight, but gradually, her thinking shifted, and she chose to remain at the school. Bad grades still happen, but she now articulates it as a result of her actions, not her ability. 

Don’t think some people are born resilient and others aren’t. 

Do help young people reflect on the reasons behind both setbacks and successes. When they face adversity, ask them, “What has worked for you in the past that might work here?” When they succeed, celebrate together and also evaluate what led to the positive outcome. Over time, they will recognize when their efforts are effective, and setbacks, both big and small, will feel less daunting. 

With resilience and gratitude, 


Michael Baratta is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.