BEMIDJI -- He grew up in Bemidji, and still considers it his “home plate,” but Michael Thomas Sunnarborg has found many ways to share his experiences with people around the world.

Sunnarborg, 54, is an author, photographer, blogger, speaker, consultant and transformation coach.

He adds one more title to that list: Relentless optimist. It’s a trait he describes on his website, michaelcreative.com, as “my ability to reframe any situation into something positive — a skill that my parents taught me at a very young age.”

Sunnarborg spent his junior year of high school as a Rotary exchange student in Finland.

“That changed my life,” he said, “because it reminded me that the world is so much bigger than me. That there are languages and foods and people and customs that I never ever would have been able to have access to without that opportunity. I learned so much about myself by talking to others and learning from others. It just expanded me exponentially. And then I’ve never looked back.”

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After graduating from Bemidji High School in 1984, Michael enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he became a Big Ten football and basketball cheerleader, captain and coach. He also became an entrepreneur, forming a coaching company for high school and college cheerleaders.

In his 30s, he lived and worked in Hawaii for 10 years, and during that time he started teaching online courses for the University of Phoenix.

In his 40s, he spent a year in Bangalore, India, on an expatriate assignment for Target Corporation, leading global training and learning development. Two of the photographs he took while traveling in that part of the world have been licensed for use by National Geographic.

Returning to Minnesota, Sunnarborg was working for a senior living organization when he and some co-workers were summoned to a meeting. The company had lost some funding, and their jobs were being eliminated. They were all handed empty white boxes and told to clean out their cubicles and leave the building within an hour.

Instead of sulking about being laid off, Michael saw it as an opportunity.

“I thought, 'I’m not going to do this alone,’” he said. “So I started this White Box Club, because I thought there’s a club of us now.”

He connected with other laid-off workers in the Twin Cities area and started leading bi-weekly meetings and meetups, providing live coaching sessions and resources for people in career transition. Some five years later, the White Box Club has more than 2,000 members. One of Sunnarborg’s books, an Amazon best seller, is “The White Box Club Handbook.”

After leaving that last corporate job, Michael said he began to focus “on my inner artist, photographer and author.” He started publishing a series of books about life lessons learned from years of traveling and living around the world.

The list of books includes: “21 Days to Better Balance,” “21 Days to Better Relationships” and “21 Keys to Work/Life Balance.”

He also wrote “Bald Men Don’t Use Hairspray and Other Assumptions,” a title that was inspired when he was on his way to a symphony concert. It was a windy day, and Michael’s hair was a mess. He stopped to pick up a friend who was follically challenged, and absentmindedly asked if the friend had any hairspray. Turns out he did; it was useful for removing stains from clothing. Thus the “assumptions” part of the book title.

Sunnarborg said he uses his books as a platform for his coaching. He invites people to book a free 30-minute phone call that he calls a “check-in chat” in which he simply asks what’s on their mind. Some of those callers become coaching clients.

Michael’s mother, Yvonne, says she noticed early on that her son had a gift for helping others.

“He is so purposed to be an encourager,” Yvonne said, “helping remind people of their value and their worth, and that change is not bad."

Yvonne Sunnarborg shares coffee and conversation with her son, Michael, at their Bemidji home. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer).
Yvonne Sunnarborg shares coffee and conversation with her son, Michael, at their Bemidji home. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer).

Family has always been important to Michael, and his book about relationships reflects that. One chapter is titled “Befriend your family, befamily your friends.” He writes about his friendships with his parents, Tom and Yvonne, and his sister, Becky.

“Our whole family, we’re all really good friends,” he said. “It’s about how to get to know your family as individual people and become friends with them. Because a friendship is very different from a family relationship.

"My mom is also my co-creator, my art room buddy. We do craft things together, we cook together. Plus she still gets to be my mom when I need her. Same thing with my dad. I get to play the dad card when I need advice. But yet we can just be really good friends, go out for lunch, go drive around with the cars. My sister, too. We’ve all become friends and have our own friendships as well as still be a family.”