Steve Barkley grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, in the late 1950s and 60s when the area consisted of big orchards and open land.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Steve went to work for Advance Micro Devices (AMD) during the Wild West days of the electronics industry. In 1983, the microprocessor group moved to Austin, Texas, and Steve jumped at a chance to leave California.
“I was married with two young children. We were living in a part of San Jose that wasn’t the best area to raise a family,” he explained. “For example, the children’s school was covered with graffiti. So, when I had a chance to move into a nice middle-class neighborhood in Austin, we made that our home for 39 years.”
Steve’s job was in production control. He made sure a customer’s order shipped out correctly and on time. Eventually, he became an operations manager with responsibility for testing, hardware engineering, equipment maintenance and shipping. It was an interesting job because Steve would go months without seeing his boss and he even wrote his own performance review to make sure it was submitted on time.
When production moved to Malaysia, Steve’s job duties changed to wafer sort which involved testing chips on the silicon wafers before they were put into packages. Then, he eventually transitioned to an engineering test operations area. One day, management changes at the company meant Steve had to lay off his staff in the morning, before he was laid off himself that morning.
“It was rather funny because my boss didn’t know how to do it. I had to explain the process to him by showing him what papers to fill out, which copies to keep for the company and which ones to give to me,” said Steve.
An obsession with martial arts
Years before that fateful day, something happened to change his family’s lives. Steve and his wife, Tammy, had six boys before he turned 45. They were all baseball enthusiasts and played on various teams. Over the years, Steve even coached a team, kept score and served as an announcer.
One summer, one of their sons decided he wanted to try martial arts instead. As luck would have it, a man was placing flyers on windshields in a supermarket parking lot a few days later. Tammy was in her car as the man passed and she engaged him in conversation about a new studio opening nearby. A short time later, she visited the taekwondo school and spoke with its instructor. Tammy was so impressed with the operation, she signed up their entire family for lessons.
“I was the oldest person in class, but martial arts became something of a passion for us,” Steve explained. “I saw how it could really change people for the better.”
After a few years, he became an instructor trainee so he could help train students. It was a volunteer position, but he was learning himself, so Steve didn’t mind.
Shortly after turning 50, when Steve visited a doctor for a routine physical, he mentioned having heartburn. He was referred to a gastroenterologist, who scheduled an endoscopy to look down his throat. Steve was diagnosed with high-grade dysplasia, which is a stage of illness just before esophageal cancer.
The doctor recommended removing the junction where his esophagus connects to his stomach and he cut Steve’s vagus nerve in the process. That procedure had multiple nasty side effects which he still experiences daily.
“I remember waking up in the intensive care unit tied to a gurney with nine tubes coming out of my body,” Steve explained. “But I remember lifting my leg and doing a front kick, which proved to me that I would be walking out of the hospital.”
It took him four months to recover, which meant he couldn’t work at AMD and spent most of his day at home.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m 50 years old, a highly-paid person in the tech industry and teaching martial arts classes for free. Why am I doing this?'” Steve explained. “Suddenly, I felt a nudge to take a test to become a certified instructor. I went from questioning why I was involved in martial arts to a decided heart about becoming an instructor.”
A few months later, one of the instructors at the studio was leaving and Steve’s son wanted to take over a class.
“The gentleman who owned to school said he would rather sell us the business. So, we wrote down the pros and cons and decided to take a chance and bought the business in 2005,” Steve explained. “My only goal was not to lose money in the venture. I was still making good money at AMD and I’d go to the studio after work. However, my wife and son were doing most of the work to manage the business.”
When the recession of 2008 prompted the restructuring at AMD and Steve lost his job, Tammy encouraged him to focus his full attention on the taekwondo school.
“The day I was laid off, we were at the school by noon, and we haven’t looked back. In fact, it grew to the point it fully supports Tammy and I as well as one of my sons.”
By 2012, the business outgrew its long-time location, which prompted a move to a much larger facility across the street. Everything was moving forward on autopilot until COVID forced the school to nearly shut down in 2020. “We lost 70% of our business and had to start teaching online via Zoom.”
“I was called both elderly and unessential at the same time,” said Steve. “But we have some wonderful landlords who gave us a break during that time. Without their help, we wouldn’t be in business today.”
Live Forever Young
Steve likes martial arts because it is a way for people of all ages to stay limber and healthy. It’s also a skill for self-defense, but most of all, martial arts give people a goal to achieve.
“I don’t ever plan on using taekwondo to defend myself. In fact, I try to stay out of situations like that,” he explained. “When you take a skills test and don’t pass, that can be hard to take. But, when you don’t quit and you keep getting better, it builds resilience in you. That’s strong mental health, too.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of Steve’s taekwondo business it that many families taking lessons together. The quality time builds stronger relationships and makes wonderful memories.
“Martial arts is a great family activity because you’re all doing the same things together,” he said.
A few years ago, Steve started a taekwondo class for people over 50. It thrived because older people were sometimes uncomfortable training with and around teenagers and children. Yet, they still wanted to participate and Steve wanted to make it easier for them.
“It bothers me to hear people say they are too old to take a taekwondo class because that means they’re putting a limit on themselves,” he explained.
Hearing that excuse so often motivated Steve to help people over 50 to stop feeling and acting old. He formed a separate business called Live Forever Young.
He came up with the name after reading about Jerry Sanders, the flamboyant businessman who started AMD. In an interview, Jerry was asked what he wanted written on his tombstone and he replied, “He lived forever young.”
“The phrase ‘living forever young’ resonated with me because to a 95-year-old, someone who is 70 isn’t old at all,” Steve explained. “The name of the taekwondo business is Rise Martial Arts and our slogan is ‘Rise to your best.’ Age has nothing to do with being the best you can be, and being in the best shape you can be.
“I am not at a stage where I even want to consider retiring or slowing down. If retiring means stopping, I never want to retire. Stopping is the worst thing you can do,” said Steve.
Yet, many people get caught up in a poor diet and lack of exercise. So, by the time they reach age 50 or 60, they no longer feel physically capable of doing the things they want to do, he added.
“I want to help them get over that self-limiting belief because I want them to feel better,” said Steve. “That’s my overarching purpose at this point.”
Rethinking personal responsibility
Steve recalled the strategy used at AMD to solve big problems. The company would gather a core group of people who had been working together for 20 years.
Someone would outline the problem, then describe how he would define success and what the end result would look like. Soon, one person would say, “Well, I can do this,” and someone else would say, “I could do that.” Within a short time, the company had a plan to address the problem with individuals taking ownership to solve it.
“That is totally different from a boss approaching the situation and dictating who was going to be responsible for accomplishing a specific task,” Steve said. “When you raise your hand and claim you can do something, then it becomes your personal responsibility to get it done in a way that helps everyone else succeed.”
Steve approaches Live Forever Young in much the same way. He serves as a coach by encouraging people to think up some action they could take right now, then he holds them accountable to what they decide to do next. He sees that type of strategy working to solve any problem someone faces.
“It is not time for the baby boomer generation to ride off into the sunset or to pass the torch,” said Steve. “This world is facing some serious problems and they need the accumulated wisdom of the baby boomer generation to help resolve those problems.
“The world does not need baby boomers sitting on a couch and watching television while complaining about all their aches and pains. We certainly don’t need them feeling sorry for themselves and saying they’re too old,” he added.
“No matter what condition you are in right now, you can certainly improve,” Steve explained. “I’ve seen people over 50 doing some amazing things. When you are willing to make a change and you’re committed to seeing it through, then, yes, amazing things can happen.”
Baby boomers can still experience a purpose for their lives and a passion for carrying it out – as long as it’s somehow connected to helping other people.
“Even though I am motivated to be my best, physically and mentally, that’s not really my purpose in life,” he explained. “It’s too selfish because I’m the only person who benefits. However, if I can help other people overcome health challenges, improve their fitness, realign their mindset and overcome whatever barriers they put up for themselves which prevents them from enjoying a better life, then that’s a reward for me.”
Steve gets fired up about maintaining his regimen when parents approach him at the taekwondo studio to thank him for the changes they’ve seen in their children.
“We get five-star reviews all the time from parents talking about how our company gave students more confidence in themselves as well as more self-discipline,” he explained. “We started incorporating critical thinking skills into our curriculum because kids aren’t getting that in schools any more. They are trained to take whatever they’re told by a group or authority at face value without analyzing the information.
“Baby boomers were never taught that way. It was ingrained in us to become problem solvers by thinking things through and coming up with real solutions,” said Steve. “We need leaders who can do that. So, when children in our leadership program can stand tall, look people in the eye and speak loudly, that’s a tremendous reward for the training we provide.”
Advice for people over 50
The most important thing people over 50 need to do is stop telling themselves they are old, Steve explained.
“When you tell yourself you are old, you put all kinds of limits on yourself,” he added. “I don’t even like jokes and memes about old age because they just reinforce negative stereotypes about people over 50.”
They also need to move and eat with purpose every day. Seasoned citizens must keep their bodies in good physical condition and their minds sharp, otherwise deterioration sets in.
“You have to demand the best from yourself, so don’t settle for anything less,” said Steve.
Today, five of Steve’s six sons have become black belt instructors. For all his family’s success, Steve gives a great deal of credit to Tammy for her faith in him and in their business.
“I never would have bought the taekwondo school without her support,” Steve explained. “I would have been laid off at AMD and spent my time filling out resumes looking for another job. I wouldn’t have enjoyed an opportunity to build a successful business and touch so many other lives.”
To connect with Steve and learn more about his business, visit www.liveforeveryoung.me. People who listen to this podcast episode can enter the word “purpose” into the contact form on Steve’s website to receive a special gift.
For information about his taekwondo school, visit www.risewithmartialarts.com.
After closing his business and enduring several painful years of uncertainty regarding what to do with his life, Greg founded Forward From 50 to help men and women over 50 to live more purposeful lives by pursuing things they are passionate about. A Wisconsin native, Greg currently lives in Arizona.