A tale of persistence, passion, and music

Table of contents

Table of Contents
Part I
Chapter 1 The Beginning
Chapter 2 Violin and Middle Passage
Chapter 3 Chocolate City
Chapter 4 Europe
Chapter 5 Tarzan, Practicing & Searching
Chapter 6 Interlochen
Chapter 7 A Love at Penn State
Chapter 8 Final Year at Penn State
Chapter 9 Jumpstarting the Homeless
Chapter 10 Dungeons, Dragons & Miracles with Robin Williams
Chapter 11 Reconciliation Tour
Chapter 12 The Angel
Part II
Chapter 13 Unearthing the Sphinx
Chapter 14 Becoming Strong
Chapter 15 A Mirror for my Soul
Chapter 16 There was Moore to Life
Chapter 17 I Reach for Oprah
Chapter 18 A Detroit Renaissance
Chapter 19 Picture Perfect
Chapter 20 A New Place for My Heart
Chapter 21 Uncommon Genius
Chapter 22 (Fund)raising the Dream
Chapter 23 Getting to Carnegie Hall
Chapter 24 Building Beyond Oneself
Part III
Chapter 25 A Change in Direction
Chapter 26 Dean of the Big Blue
Chapter 27 A Noah Crisis
Chapter 28 The Spirit Endures
Chapter 29 Family and My Boys


Lessons in Gratitude tells the story of Aaron Dworkin, a MacArthur Fellow, social entrepreneur, and spoken word artist who has dedicated his life’s work to changing the face of classical arts in the world. The themes of persistence, passion, and loyalty shine through stories of an unhappy childhood, a lifelong search for identity, and the obstacles of race, culture, and class. Readers will learn how the author greets these challenges and how they drove him to make a difference for people who are shut out of opportunity. Persistence in the face of multiple failures and false starts ultimately led Dworkin to create the Sphinx Organization, whose mission is to address the underrepresentation of Black and Latino people in the field of the classical arts. 

Aaron’s unique journey, which begins with his adoption by a white Jewish couple from Chicago at two weeks of age, leads him to the ultimate reunification with his birth family at the age of 31. Lessons in Gratitude is a coming of age story that examines the difficulties of biracial identity across generations and the challenges that mixed race families still face today. It is also a painful and honest adoption memoir, further complicating the narrator’s experiences of racial identity throughout his life and shaping his experiences with his own children. Through his work in the arts and the impact of this work, Dworkin has been able to “pay forward” the first thing that offered him unconditional love—music.

Aaron P. Dworkin is a Poetjournalist, Professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, and Founder of the internationally acclaimed Sphinx Organization.

“Aaron Dworkin’s memoir is as captivating as reading a novel; except it is a true story. On one hand, it accounts for challenges he encountered, from racism—not just from strangers, but people close to him—to financial and mental health issues. More important is how he learned to understand flaws in the system, affirm his identity, and support others; lessons from which we can all benefit.”

- Jane Chu, 11th Chairperson, National Endowment for the Arts

“An open, honest, and compassionate account of a singular life in which music, art, community, and humanity are inextricably connected. Aaron Dworkin’s story is proof positive of the immense power of the arts to change the world for the better, in ways both big and small, immediate and long-lasting.”

- Lara Downes, host of NPR’s Amplify and a Billboard Chart–topping recording artist

“Aaron’s life story is a compelling testament to the power of art and artists. Art, as a transformative force that helps us reimagine what is possible. Artists, as the wielders of that force. Their power lies in the willingness to bring every piece of themselves to their art and the world.”

- Jenn White, host of 1A on NPR

“My respect and gratitude for Aaron Dworkin is as old as the hills and deep as the canyons of our country. He is at once an artist who inspires us to reconsider the world and our understanding of it, and an entrepreneur who leads us to a better future.”

- Deborah F. Rutter, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

“Aaron Dworkin has a story to tell and share: his voice generates a genuine harmony of the dissonant pieces of life that synthesize together–all part of living with truths that define us.”

- David Mas Masumoto, Author of Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm

“No one has been more effective than Aaron Dworkin in opening doors for talented musicians heretofore excluded from our nation's orchestras. He has created institutions that will continue to transform our world.”

- Mary Sue Coleman, Former President of the University of Michigan

“This book is more than a memoir; it’s a journey of resilience, adaptation, and redemption. From orphanage to concert hall and to the ivory tower, Aaron’s story weaves through identity shifts and challenging circumstances. Heartrending yet inspiring, Lessons in Gratitude offers a compelling narrative of overcoming obstacles and finding forgiveness.”

- Jeff DeGraff, Professor and Author