Midlife Mentors – Ken Fife | Starting Over & Living Fully Beyond 70
I first came into contact with Ken almost 21 years ago when he was holidaying in Spain and I'd called him about a position in his software business.
Pleased with my assertiveness, he put me on the shortlist and invited me to undergo a battery of tests to assess my suitability.
A few weeks later, I met him in person and was immediately struck by his calm and statesmanlike demeanour. As a newly-minted employee, I felt lucky to receive his guidance, and I went on to benefit from his wisdom over the many years that followed.
Today, I'm pleased to say that Ken is one of my most trusted and revered mentors. Through countless challenges and personal upheavals, Ken has always been a voice of reason and a fine example to follow.
As I remarked to him some time ago, I've never once heard him raise his voice in anger, nor use his considerable power to push a personal agenda.
He is a model of reasonableness. That's not a word we hear very often; a bit clunky perhaps, but it's one few people personify.
When I sought advice on investing, Ken was there. When my marriage collapsed, he was there for me again. And when I was losing everything I'd worked so hard to build, he stood by me with words of encouragement and the perspective I needed to push through.
He embodies everything that makes a man good, on all the levels I aspire to. This becomes clear when you talk to others about his life and the way he conducts himself. I believe you can gain an accurate measure of your integrity by what others say about you when you're not in the room. I've never heard anything but respect and admiration for this man.
And so it was only logical that when I embarked on this quest to showcase my greatest midlife mentors, Ken's was the first number I dialled.
He's done a lot of things in his 79 years. He spent two years as Ranch Manager of the Uluisaivu Corporation, a 120,000-acre cattle ranch in Fiji. He managed and co-owned a 5,500-acre livestock hill country property in New Zealand for 18 years. Following his move to Australia, he went on to grown a software company into a global player, nursed that company through massive change, and along the way, helped others to grow and to shine – myself included.
But what I admire most about Ken is the way he's prioritised his life. His family has always been at the top of his list, and he has engineered his business interests around that tenet. He's also a believer in doing versus vacillating, while still recognising the need to think deeply about a problem before acting.
He's not afraid to trust his instincts and take calculated risks, either. Pouring every cent into modernising his company's software to compete with the #1 player took nerves of steel. And plenty of faith in the people who made it happen.
He carries an adventurer’s heart, too – whether it's the weekly 18 km round trip walk to his office or it's the 800 km Camino de Santiago, which he recently completed with his daughters. His search for roads less travelled (accompanied by his wife, Lee) also saw him set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula, while closer to home, guitar practice now forms part of his daily routine. He's the archetypal renaissance man.
So without any further delay, I'm honoured to present Ken's responses to the Midlife Mentor questions. I hope you enjoy them.
Do you consider yourself middle-aged, and how do you feel about this moniker?
Yes, I am middle-aged, but it’s a meaningless term that I don’t bother to think about.
Is there something you loved to do when you were young that you've since ‘rediscovered' and embraced in later years
After retirement from my CEO role at age 75, I finally found the time to set (and slowly achieve) the ambitious goals I set for myself in my quest to attain competence in my musicianship as a blues guitar and harmonica player. I taught myself both these instruments when I was very young, but they'd taken a back seat over most of my life. Now I get immense satisfaction from my daily practice.
I also have more time to work on my fitness regime than I've ever had before.
Do you believe middle age (say, 40-65) is different today than it was for your parents? If so, how?
Not hugely different, except for the vast improvement in health services and therefore, longevity. This creates the need to self-fund a far more prolonged retirement period.
What was the most challenging aspect of approaching middle age? What fears or concerns did you have?
No fears or concerns. Every age has its blessings and drawbacks, and middle age is no exception.
At the end of each year, I list the habits, practices and beliefs I'm going to say ‘yes' to and ‘no' to next year. As a mentor to other mid-lifers, what would be some of your ‘yeses' and ‘nos'?
The beginning of a new year is time for introspection and life planning. Guiding principles, I suggest, can be encapsulated in the following categories:
- Health and wellbeing goals
- Financial goals
- Moderation goals around alcohol/gambling/eating/smoking or other addictions that impinge on your ability to get the most out of life
- Balancing work, play and family time
- Setting really difficult challenges that make you extremely proud if you achieve them
What's a tactic you've used to gain more control over your life?
For me, I promised myself I'd always arrive at work early so that I could be at home with my family no later than 6:00 pm. In busy periods I would start work as early as 4:00 am or even earlier rather than break my 6:00 pm rule.
What is your dominant cause of anxiety or frustration, and how do you deal with it?
I’m used to being the boss. Frustration comes from the lack of commitment from others, which in turn requires patience. This can take a lifetime to learn.
Did you suffer a midlife crisis? How did it show up for you and what helped you to overcome it?
I experienced a tsunami at age 41. I had a marriage in crisis, which I couldn’t blame on my wife, and a legal play by my business partner which saw him gain control of the farm property I was managing, and in which I was an equal partner. My partner ended up with the property and my wife and I gained a payout for half its value. So over an amazingly short period, I was left with some cash but no marriage and no job.
I found myself shifting from NZ to Australia with my new partner and living in a big city for the first time in my life. This left me with the dilemma of working out how a country boy could survive in suburbia.
After 40, what event, decision or perceived risk was pivotal for you? How did it manifest and how did you respond?
On arrival in Australia, I set very stringent goals along the lines of those set out above. I also purchased a modest home and then resolved to invest the balance of the proceeds from the sale of the farm – all of it – into rental properties. When this was accomplished, I spent the rest of my cash on a training course designed to teach out-of-work people how to sell computers. That left me with no option but to get a job at all costs.
My new skills eventually enabled me to co-found a new business with my current business partner, which still keeps me busy and now employs well over 100 people.
What book would you recommend to a person over 40 who wants to reinvent their life, and why?
In my early thirties, I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and “Your Erroneous Zones” by Wayne Dwyer. Those two books gave an enormous boost to my confidence. Prior to that, I struggled to enter a room without feeling like everyone was looking at me.
I can truly say that both those books changed my life. Since then, I have been an avid reader of business books and self-improvement publications. Some of the game-changers have been “Younger Next Year” by Crowley and Lodge, “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, by Robert Kiyosaki and “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. My bookshelf is lined with many others.
What advice would you give to a mid-lifer who believes they're stuck on a certain path and should just accept it?
Follow the weekly blogs of Peter Fritz of Midlife Tribe. (PF: I'm blushing.)
Can you think of a way you’ve surprised yourself at an age where many people feel ‘set in their ways’?
Not really. I left school at an early age, and I don’t have any unique skills. All my life I’ve worked hard and kept my nose clean. I make lists and set goals and the rest seems to follow. For me, there’s been no ‘a-ha' moment or special recipe, and life has been great. Best of all there’s more to come!
Ken's formula for living a fulfilling and meaningful life is pretty simple. It proves that honouring the basics of integrity, prioritising and hard work really do pay dividends.
More than anything, Ken's example shows me that ‘the good life' is attainable. It doesn't demand that you ‘bet the farm' or hustle 24/7. You don't need to be smarter than everyone else, or more ruthless. Indeed, you can be a gentleman, a family man and decent human being and still come out looking like you won the lottery.
Despite Ken's success as an entrepreneur and investor, he doesn't display any of the outward signs one would expect. He lives in a modest home in a middle-ring suburb, he drives a pre-owned car, and he often retreats with his wife to their 35-year-old caravan down the coast for mini-breaks.
As I've said to Ken a few times, I want to be just like him when I grow up! He is, in every sense of the word, a rare and valuable mentor.
So until next time, here's to mastering your midlife!
Other Midlife Mentors
Also published on Medium.