The Angle of Evolution: Responding to Life’s Ups and Downs

By Ken DeLeon

My father was a brilliant professor and chairman of his mathematics department. He was a man of few words but highly articulate – when he spoke, people listened. In a discussion, it always seemed like he was calculating the best and most concise response as if he was solving a math equation. If I were to describe my approach to life with a mathematical metaphor, one that my father could appreciate, it would be:

Life is Like an Upward Sine Wave. What is Your Angle of Evolution?

As you may recall from high school trigonometry, a sine wave is a mathematical curve that is constantly oscillating up and down in a regular, consistent manner. The amplitude of a sine wave is the maximum distance traveled from the center line.

I created the quote above and the mindset to get there only through enduring, analyzing, and then evolving from four life events that others would consider tragedies. While we all face adversity in life, each crisis is a fork from which you either evolve upward or devolve to new lows. While you cannot control life events, how you react to them will determine its outcome. Life events are neither inherently good nor evil; they are open to our interpretation and our reaction. Control your reaction and it will set you free.

We all have a sine wave of life, with the valleys and mountains of life being our oscillating from peak to trough with a relatively regular pattern. What I noticed in my life is that my periods of sadness or loss were followed by periods of exceptional growth from the resulting epiphanies and changes that loss brings. With the right mindset, I evolved from being barely able to suffer through loss to accepting loss immediately and further optimizing my life because of these lessons. The knowledge I gained through overcoming my “tragedy” gave me the strength to win the battles I would fight. Even in the trough, I could look up and see the light of knowledge I would find at my future peak. Now I not only can accept adversity, I readily seek it as I know the greatest evolution comes after calculated risk-taking and failing fast and forward.

Through seeking the lessons from the pain, I found that I was not just going through my sine wave, I was actually evolving to a higher level by accepting my lows. The full analogy then came to me: We are all going through a sine wave of growth and setbacks in life, but we are increasing our amplitude by angling upward with each cycle of life with new insights. By not fearing the downs and, instead, seeing them for the growth opportunities that they are, I don’t fear loss and can resiliently accept and then overcome challenging life events. The intensity of my experiences and more importantly, through the proper mindset of learning as much as I could from them, I was able to imbue these seemingly negative and random events with positive connotations and outcomes. This has amplified the sense of self-control of my own destiny and also has increased my angle of evolution.

The angle of evolution is a concept I use to convey the velocity of growth that people experience. Complacent people are born and stay their entire life at a 15-degree angle. Silicon Valley attracts a category of people who are generally well-educated and are life-long learners. This is the category most of our clients are in, including myself. This set of people are at a 30-degree angle of evolution and, with the right mindset, can and have raised this to a 45-degree angle of evolution. Please note this is not a statement about one’s inherent intelligence or overall worth but simply a self-created metaphor to illustrate that our mindset and our choices control how rapidly we continue to grow in expertise and insight.

Note that if I illustrate a sine wave at a 45-degree angle of evolution, even when the sine wave is in decline in relative terms, it is still rising in absolute terms. The amplitude is continually increasing as the angle of the rise more than counterbalances the down times. Along this segment is where you really can take calculated risks when failures are buoyed up by your long-term growth and improvement through open-mindedness, seeking the most authentic and original path in life, and gaining strength and speed of recovery due to lessons learned from failures.

It would have been easy to have been beaten and to have lost my life purpose by bearing the four “tragedies” in my relatively young life. They include my sister’s suicide, my nearly fatal accident when a speeding car going 45 MPH hit me while I walked with my father on the sidewalk, or the two cancers that likely were caused directly or indirectly by the accident (and then beautifully beaten by the genius doctors at Stanford Cancer Center).  Instead of dwelling on the pain and loss, I used these forks in my life (that almost cost me my life) as springboards to greater wisdom and happiness. I was able to turn negative life events into positive growth. While I still miss my sister beyond belief, I can honestly say that the three other “tragedies” that I overcame made me a better person overall and were worth the pain.

One of my greatest life purposes is to take all of the hardships I have been through and first, learn from the “tragedy,” and then integrate those lessons into myself. Once I test them in my own life, I then pass on the most effective lessons to others. My goal of being an alchemist, who can turn hardship into personal and then community life lessons, helps me endure the suffering I feel when in the abyss of loss.

I convey these lessons in many ways including being a volunteer public speaker. I have spoken in front of 2,500 people at Tony Robbins events. Yet my favorite presentations are speeches before local students and at-risk youth in Silicon Valley. I have given hundreds of volunteer speeches at Silicon Valley schools and organizations where I focus on suicide prevention, cancer research, and effective risk-taking for successful entrepreneurs. (Please feel free to contact me about speaking on these subjects for your group.)

I realize that my clients and others in the Silicon Valley community would like to know more about my personal story and how I was resiliently able to overcome so much loss but, ultimately, get through the pain and evolve as quickly as possible to avoid wasting time – our most precious commodity. Therefore, I will write an essay for each hardship addressing the initial loss and then the later gain of insight that resulted.

My first installment will be my most powerful and poignant, as it deals with how losing my sister forever changed me. I seek to honor her by letting her inspire me to make a difference with my life and leave the most significant positive legacy that I can, both personally and professionally. Our lives have meaning beyond ourselves through the gifts we give and the legacy we leave behind.