You’ve likely heard the stereotypes about millennials: They’re a generation of entitled misfits. They lack a strong work ethic. They’re only interested in activities that offer immediate gratification.
You want the truth? This generation isn’t going to wreck the world. They’re going to save it.
If millennials feel entitled to anything, it’s the opportunity to be passionately engaged in a vision they can pour their entire heart and soul into. Show them what success looks like, then get out of the way and watch what awesome looks like.
I’d like to introduce you to Dirk Bak, one of nine millennials I interviewed who have faced and overcome significant obstacles that stood in the way of their goals and dreams. It’s a privilege to share their inspiring life stories with you here.
Click here to see all the Millennials Rising stories.
Dirk Bak, born in 1978, is part owner and president of Minneapolis-based SDQ Ltd., a family-owned holding company for businesses ranging from janitorial services to corporate facility management to real estate investment properties.
My seventeen months from hell started on a beautiful May day in 2008. As former chair of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Minnesota, I was at a high-powered lunch with the editor-in-chief of The Economist, the former chairman of Cargill, a few other business bigwigs and my dad, who had once been a top executive at Medtronic.
I was twenty-nine and feeling pretty good about myself. When Romney was in town, which was often, I accompanied him on meet-and-greets with local executives. I was president of the building maintenance company my mom had founded and a freshly minted law school graduate. My wife, Evonne, and I had a five-year-old son, Jaxon, and a two-year-old daughter, Liv, and she was pregnant again. If it sounds like I had a lot going on, yeah, I was running. Hard. I’d get four hours of sleep a night and hop back on the treadmill.
Lunch had barely started when my phone rang. I kicked it to voicemail. It rang a second time, then a third. I was a bit agitated. I excused myself from the table, checked the phone, and saw Evonne’s number. Now I was really agitated; I had asked her not to call during important meetings. I called back and said, “What is going on?” She said, “I’m in labor and we just lost the baby.” I was stunned. I felt helpless because there was nothing I could say or do to comfort her.
When a baby is stillborn, you’re faced with a bunch of decisions you’re not at all prepared for. Do you name the child? Do you have a funeral? Where do you bury him? We ended up naming him Fritz after one of my wife’s great-grandparents. We decided to go with cremation and place his ashes in with those of whichever family member passes next.
I didn’t expect how much losing Fritz would affect me. For the first time, I saw that my life wasn’t on track the way I thought it was. Yeah, I had a lot of responsibility at an early age, but I had a pretty cake life. After Fritz died, I started experiencing emotional swings. My wife would say, “Dirk, you have to grieve over this child.” I’d wave her off and say, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” I wasn’t fine. And things were about to get a whole lot worse.
Two months later, Jeb LeSueur, my best friend since childhood, developed strep throat. He then contracted a staph infection that worked its way up into his brain stem. A few days before his second wedding anniversary, he passed away. It was like some weird, surreal nightmare for all his friends and family. Evonne and I were at his parents’ house the day he passed.
Jeb’s parents, Lohr and Gloria, were like second parents to me; when my parents traveled, which was often, I would stay at their home. My parents were older when I was born and weren’t really the warm, nurturing type like Lohr and Gloria were. Lohr was a top corporate executive and I considered him a friend and mentor.
Here we had just lost a child and now my best friend had passed. Lohr and Gloria were beyond devastated. Lohr called me and asked, “Dirk, will you help me dress my son before we bury him?” Lohr and Gloria were in such a deep state of mourning that I helped plan every component of Jeb’s funeral. I couldn’t even process what was happening. I just bottled everything up and plowed straight ahead. That was the only way I knew how to cope at that point—work harder, because life doesn’t stop.
I couldn’t afford to grieve properly over Fritz and Jeb. I was back on the treadmill and picking up speed, gearing up for the presidential campaign. I was meeting a ton of top-level executives throughout the Midwest, and they’d invariably ask, “What is it that you do?” I’d tell them our family has a janitorial business, and they’d say, “Oh, I wonder who’s cleaning our building.” Business started booming and I found myself transitioning into a business development role.
I was moving mountains but I hadn’t been feeling well. I figured I was just worn out. I was eating poorly and guzzling soda all day like a caffeine junkie just to keep going. I ended up coming down with pneumonia, and couldn’t shake it. Finally, I went to the doctor, who took an X-ray and found a mass on my abdomen. The only reason they saw it was because the protective screen they put on me during the X-ray was a little lower than it should have been. So I lucked out there, although I felt anything but lucky at the time.
A week later, on Christmas Eve at 6:32 a.m., our landline rang and woke us up. Evonne answered and handed me the phone. It was the doctor. He said, “That mass is malignant; you have cancer.” I was probably too sleepy and disoriented to panic; instead, my mind kicked into “problem solving” mode. I asked him if I could delay the surgery three weeks. I had been planning a family ski trip in January and attending the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. He said, “Okay, but I don’t want to see it go any longer than that.” I was thinking, Dude, you’re telling me I’ve got cancer on Christmas Eve; you won’t be the guy cutting on me anyway.
I hung up and Evonne asked what was going on. I said, “I’ve got cancer.” She started freaking out. That’s when it hit me. Wait, I’ve got cancer? I couldn’t answer any of the questions Evonne was firing at me and I didn’t have the doctor’s number because we didn’t have Caller ID since we only used the landline for our home security system.
After we both settled down, the first call I made was to my life insurance guy who was a longtime friend. I wanted to make sure my family was taken care of. I had a provision that I could buy extra insurance, so I told him to lock it in. I also exercised the option to convert my policies from term to whole life so my premium rate would be fixed and never expire.I delayed the surgery for Sundance because I was on the Advisory Board for a Hollywood-based organization called the CAMIE Awards, which are given to films which emphasize character and morality. My dad was on their fiduciary board and I had done some interning with them a few years earlier. That’s how I ended up meeting Mitt Romney and getting involved in his presidential campaign.
Unbeknownst to me, Evonne had made arrangements with the Huntsmans, who were family friends, for me to get a second opinion at the Huntsman Cancer Institute while we were in Utah. Meanwhile, I had gone to another doctor and had scheduled my surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Little did I know that Evonne had also arranged for me to have my surgery right then and there in Utah. When I went to the appointment, I figured the doctor was just going to look at my charts. Next thing I know I’m being wheeled into surgery. In hindsight, it was awesome, because I didn’t have time to stress out about it and the Huntsmans had their best surgeon do the operation.
Seeing the Light
It took me a while to process this, but I realized something about myself that Christmas Eve morning that made me feel ashamed: yes, I loved my family, but when it came right down to it, my life had always been all about me. It took some soul searching but I finally saw how insecure I was. I suppose it started when I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD in third grade. My parents had tutors come to our house once or twice a week until I graduated. Being short didn’t help either; I’m 5’5”.
I also felt like I had to prove myself to my dad, who was very successful. I knew he had been disappointed that I went into my mom’s business instead of being a doctor. He told me, “Yes, it’s a good business, but there are a lot of options out there. You’re selling yourself short.”
There was also a stigma in my mind about running a janitorial company. That could be a big conversation killer. You’re at a cocktail party with a bunch of CEOs. “Oh, what do you do?” “I run a cleaning company.” Next. And it wasn’t just about what kind of company it was. I’m sure people thought, Yeah, you’re doing well, but you work for your mom. Hello? That’s why I always had my eyes on moving to that next level. I was always chasing after more prestige, which is why I got a law degree. I guess I had a lot to prove to myself too.
The big problem was that the harder I worked trying to please everyone and accomplish all these great things, I was leaving my family further and further in the dust. I’m embarrassed to say this, but getting that cancer diagnosis on Christmas Eve morning was the first time in my life that I was truly more concerned about my wife and kids and their lives going forward. It killed me that I had two little kids who could be raised without their dad.
Dear God, Not Another One
A couple months later, I had recovered from surgery and we found out we were pregnant again. We were happy but pretty nervous because of what happened with Fritz. When Cooper was born in September, it was a big sigh of relief. But I was about to get another wake-up call. Literally.
Cooper had been born around midnight and Evonne’s doctor wanted her to stay an extra night in the hospital, so I left around dinner time the next day to stay with Jaxon and Liv. In the middle of the night, the phone rang. It was Evonne and she had “that voice.” She said, “Dirk, I need you to get down to the hospital and bring Lohr with you. Cooper’s really sick. The doctors don’t know what’s going on. He spiked a fever and he’s in the ICU.” My heart sank. I woke up Lohr and Gloria and they rushed right over. Gloria stayed with the kids while Lohr and I drove to the hospital.
It turns out that Cooper had contracted bacterial spinal meningitis in the hospital. He was hooked up to everything and looked lifeless while they gave him multiple spinal taps; they had to do four because they botched the first two. Evonne was exhausted; I told her I’d stay with Cooper while she went back to her room and slept. But the hospital was so busy they thought she had been discharged and they didn’t have a room for her. I ended up driving her to a relative’s house a mile away so she could sleep.
While I was watching Cooper’s heart monitor, his heart rate flatlined. The nurses ignored the monitor alarm because they were understaffed, busy with other children, and it sounded like other less important alarms. I was frantic; I ran over to the nurse practitioner and insisted that she come over to check on Cooper. When she saw what was happening, she immediately called over another nurse. As they started working on him she asked me to leave the ICU, which I refused to do. It was a minute and a half of absolute panic.
That was my “Dear God” moment; I thought, Help me out here, God, I cannot lose another child. Fortunately, he was a real fighter. Still, If I hadn’t been there at that moment, Cooper would have died. One of us was there twenty-four hours a day with him for over two weeks. They had to run a catheter line from his elbow into his heart to administer the drugs. He gradually got better and we brought him home in October.
We created a clean and healthy environment at home to help build up Cooper’s immune system. Being the owner of a cleaning company, I had plenty of hand sanitizer; everyone who came over had to wash their hands. We didn’t take Cooper outside in six months. Thank heaven there were no residual effects. In fact, he’s our most rambunctious kid.
Peace and Purpose
For those seventeen months from early May 2008 to late September 2009, I was in nonstop survival mode, just trying to breathe and get through everything. I still grieve for my best friend and my stillborn son. I wish I could change what happened, but the best I can do is honor their memory by changing myself and striving to become a better man.
Learning so many heavy life lessons at such a young age clarified my sense of purpose. On the business front, I wanted my company to be a well-oiled machine that wasn’t so dependent on my day-to-day involvement. In 2010, I enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, OPM (Owner/President Management), and graduated in 2012. If I had anything left to prove to myself, becoming a Harvard alumnus has taken care of that.
Harvard’s OPM program equipped me with the skills I needed to take my company to the next couple of levels. We now have a great management team in place. The pre-2008 me would have been shocked at this, but I can confidently say that I want to keep the company where it is now instead of taking it to an even higher level. My motivation is no longer money and prestige, it’s about having more time with my family. That said, I’m still very active; I’m on three corporate boards in New York, Arizona, and Houston, and I chair a Minnesota nonprofit.
We have an eclectic group of friends, many of whom I met at Harvard Business School. All of my HBS classmates were millionaires; more than a dozen were billionaires. I’m still friends with many of them today. They’re comfortable around us because they know we’re not going to exploit them. There’s nothing I need or want from them other than their friendship.
Going through so much hardship and heartache has made me softer as a person, much more compassionate and empathetic. Before these tragedies happened, I never imagined that I’d be the type of person I am today. In fact, I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to be that person; back then, I just didn’t “get it.” And I don’t know if the person I am in 2015 could have convinced the person I was in 2008 that there was even anything to “get.” My accomplishments were always about me, and now the happiness I get is from watching other people accomplish their goals and live their dreams.
I’m now a much better husband, a more present parent, and a far better friend. In the last few years, a handful of people we know have lost cherished family members, some of whom were grown children in their twenties. Before I had gone through my own ordeals, I would have just sent a card and flowers and left it at that. Instead, Evonne and I have made it a priority to be of service to these families in whatever way we can, from stocking refrigerators to helping with logistics to simply being at their side so they have a shoulder to cry on should they need it.
It’s funny, but now that I’m truly comfortable in my own skin and far more authentic as an individual, I’ve realized that it’s those attributes that make you successful, not how many degrees and connections you have. I’m glad I learned that at thirty instead of fifty.
ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
If you feel more stressed than blessed . . . if you have more confusion than clarity about how to live your beliefs . . . if you long to live a richer, happier, more meaningful life . . . you will find a wealth of insight and guidance in Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World.
Through God’s Eyes is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the only book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.
Readers everywhere are discovering that when you challenge yourself to look through God’s eyes, the world around you changes, and so do you.
Who will benefit from reading Through God’s Eyes?
Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to be.
Anyone who loves life, or wants to learn how to.
Anyone who is happy, or wants to be happier.
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SEE EVERY MOMENT AS A GIFT
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• an overview of the book
• the complete table of contents
• the Foreword by Caroline Myss
• my Introduction
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• a sample end-of-chapter story
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THROUGH GOD’S EYES PDF SAMPLER
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Phil’s eBook, The Logic of Living a Spiritual Life: Supporting a Life of Faith Through Logic and Reason, is now available for 99 cents.
Order it at GodIsLogical.com.
In this eBook, you’ll find answers to questions like:
• What is the cornerstone of a spiritual life, and why?
• What is the secret to liberating yourself from other people’s judgments and expectations?
• How do you reconcile the “free will vs. Divine Will” conundrum?
• Why is there an exception to “Everything happens for a reason”?
Those who worship logic instead of God are only half right. Not only is it logical to believe in God and to live a faith-based life, the existence of a loving, benevolent God that governs all creation is perhaps the only systematic worldview that explains every aspect of life.
Phil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent authors and thought leaders he interviewed. The roster of storytellers includes Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, Caroline Myss, Larry Dossey, Rachel Naomi Remen, Bernie Siegel, Dean Ornish, and Christiane Northrup. Sixty Seconds has been translated into four languages: Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Reading this book is like spending a few minutes face to face with each of the contributors and listening to their personal stories.
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