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Aaron Dworkin:
down by the water

Aaron helps creative entrepreneurs break free from their past and set out on the journey of life before them. A celebrated social entrepreneur and arts educator, Aaron founded Sphinx to open up the world of classical music to young people of colour and was President Obama’s first nominee to the National Council on the Arts. The world is full of unfulfilled dreams, he says, so you have to put systems in place to achieve your goals. His secret is Star Trek.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.

Additional music is “The American Rhapsody, Symphonic Variations on an African Air, S. Coleridge-Taylor” by Aaron Dworkin and performed with the Sphinx symphony.


I believe it was Einstein, who said there are two types of people in the universe, people who believe they live in a loving universe and people who believe they live in a hostile universe, pretty much across the board. Everyone I’ve encountered in my life falls into one of those pockets. And pretty much for the most part, they don’t change in the entirety of the course of their lives.

Here I am, it’s Captain. And I suppose this is my log, such as it is. As a result unfortunately, as we all know, from the calamitous climate change events that caused a cataclysmic chain of events on Earth that made it impossible for humans to continue living. And, uh, I guess it’s a little more than half of the human population were able to escape and begin to rebuild. And I am one of a fleet of our ships that continue to explore. Right now. I am, uh, exploring Saturn, trying to see whether there are some possibilities here because we don’t actually know as much about what type of mineral and especially energy type of resources and how we could deal with crops in an environment such as Saturn. So we’re exploring that in a host of different ways.

How am I looking at the world around me? Am I optimistic? Or my pessimistic? You know, I teach creative entrepreneurship, arts, entrepreneurship, and arts leadership. So on a regular basis, I am giving advice to people who are uncertain and are potentially very scared to break free from their paths as they are setting out on the journey of life that is before them. So one of my, certainly major, encouragements is that people should not sit back and go, well, I’m just a pessimistic person, or I’m an optimistic person, but they should very intentionally think about whether they are pessimistic or optimistic and make and take steps to become more optimistic as they think about things that are negative in the world around them, do they give them permanence? Do they think, well, whatever’s negative, that’s going to be negative forever. Nothing you can do about it. Right? Very pessimistic view versus someone who’s optimistic who says there is this negative thing, right? Optimism doesn’t mean you’re ignoring it, but it means you look at that negative thing, but you give it less permanence. We can affect our approach and our mindset. And I very much encourage people to do that. Otherwise, a lot of our greatest fears will be realised simply through our inaction because we feel there’s nothing we can do about it.

An intense sense of survival for the species has at least resulted in, uh, I guess the fact that we don’t have any of those age old problems of a division that, that people seem to have, uh, nowadays it’s just kinda whether you like someone or not, and whether they’re, uh, whether they’re doing their job on board so that, uh, our mission can be completed. And maybe in a way it’s that, that enabled us to be able to develop the technology and do things we never thought we would do. There’s been such an absence, you know, I read these history books of how there was such racial strife and, uh, you know, especially say between black people and white people and in certain countries, especially, uh, the United States of America back then, it’s not really something we think about anymore. It’s amazing kind of how time, I think, changes that sense of relationships. And I think that must be where this happened here because we don’t, and I don’t, think about any of these racial things, racial equity seems kind of silly, like, of course there’s equity, what do you, what do you mean? You know, I guess, unless you’re talking about that ancient history of, uh, when people were silly and people with different colours of skin had different opportunities in life that, uh, of course hasn’t, hasn’t existed for years.

So, you know, as I think about a time when I was in a space of deep contentment, at least one of the times that stands out for me is actually in high school. I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy for my junior and senior year of high school. I, um, was adopted when I was two weeks old by a white Jewish, uh, couple who were scientists, uh, who already had a birth son, my older brother, also white of course, and who also ended up becoming a scientist. And I was black. I came to know biracial my birth father black Jehovah’s witness, my birth mother, white, Irish Catholic. And so growing up appearing to everyone in America, as black being raised by white Jewish parents who are scientists. And I was always spontaneous and in the arts and right, and certainly not necessarily as measured as one would think someone going into science would be. This really led to a really tough rebellion period.

So tons of an angst. Um, and I really had very little respite other than in my violin. In other words at home, I was in conflict with my parents and fighting against their rules and all of that and feeling like they had no connection to me, uh, as a human and more, their only connection was, you know, was I doing what I was told, right. Was I obeying. The ultimate thing that I experienced then was alienation. I have, uh, you know, living in Hershey, Italian with basically one black family in my school district and me – big Afro playing the violin last name Dworkin – and I go to school and certainly felt alienated. And so that really left me in a place of profound disaffection, not just with the world around me, but I would say also myself, I went and auditioned at Interlochen and then I just kind of was walking around and I was trying to decide, you know, was I just going to end up in this strange place in the woods of Northern Michigan, could this be even worse right than where I was.

And I found myself, there’s kind of a indoor outdoor amphitheater there, Kresge auditorium, main hall, where they do a number of performances. And off of the back of the stage was a balcony that overlooks the Lake Interlochen right in between two lakes. And so the main campus is on this one Lake. And I went out onto the balcony and I looked out and there were kind of these gentle waves kind of coming into shore, not a big enough lake for major waves, you know, but just kind of this ebb of nature, kind of rolling in onto land. And I gazed out and it was the combination of the sound of the water, the sense of being at profound peace. And I realized, and what flashed through my mind was there all these unknowns, I don’t know what, but whatever happens here, I can always just come right here to this place by the water and I’ll be okay.  I’m, okay, somehow this space in nature in this moment gives me a sense of, of who I am, but Interlochen ended up saving my life because I have no doubt that the path I would have ended up going down in Hershey would have been profoundly negative, highly impacting for me. Um, and to be frank would have ended up in, I think either death or incarceration. And instead I ended up on a trajectory of a life and in the arts and in diversity and in creativity. But what happened is when I had tough times, I went right down by the water. As these kind of soft waves would kind of ease their way to land and really would kind of ease away the discord and difficulty in my life if only temporarily. And somehow throughout my life that has ebbed or transformed itself. What earlier on in my life was anger at what was, and, or how I felt I had been treated, treated by peers, treated by my parents, both my adoptive parents and my birth parents.  Right. All of them, uh, not only I felt but had certainly in many technical ways abandoned me. So all of these negative emotions, somehow in my life evolved into passion towards change.

So what started out was anger at what was, and here is who to blame somehow evolved into here are things I may not like about the world around me or about people and how they might treat me, but what can I do about it? How can I have a positive impact? I don’t like this disparity of, you know, um, uh, racial equity in our country, right? As opposed to when I was younger, that’s who to blame, that’s why this is a problem. How can we call them out? And how can I be angry at them became instead, what is the problem? How can I solve it? That for me, profound shift of approach, one towards something rather than against something I think has ended up being a major architectural component to my ability to have had the life that I’ve been able to have and to, and to have had some level of, uh, of impact in terms of social change.

Love, uh, love has defined my life unequivocally. It is what is most important to me and in my life, you know, it’s interesting because love has been defined in different ways for me. So having been adopted, I did not feel or understand familial love. I certainly did not understand unconditional love. It was something I didn’t value, um, and didn’t understand and certainly did not have. And so when I was at Interlochen for my junior and senior year of high school, I defined love by the friendships that I developed there because they were profound. They were the deepest love that I had experienced. And some of those friendships continue to this day. They were in fact, unconditional love. And the first unconditional love that I experienced we’d have arguments, but we were still friends and we had some profound friendships. However, with the birth of my first son, Noah, Noah Still, it was the first time where I looked into another human being’s eyes and saw myself.

It was instantaneous and it was forever. This human who I was to, and continue to, get to know better every single day, unlike a relationship of choice, where it was built out of a friendship and shared life experiences and romanticism, right. And all of these things that compile that, this just simply was, and is it just, was there this deep connection to another soul. It’s interesting now in my life that I have what I view as I think the combination of these loves, I experienced both the familial instinctual, biologically, I think driven, um, unconditional love for my boys. And then I also feel this unconditional love for my wife, my partner in this adventure of life. That love drives every single decision that I make in life, professional or personal. It is always within the context of the priority of that love for them and any impact of my decisions upon them.

I guess I certainly don’t find myself nostalgic for the idea that, that people of different races wouldn’t get along or wouldn’t have the same opportunities. But on the other hand, I’m a little bit nostalgic about the fact that I could walk through a cornfield and wouldn’t have to worry about food and, uh, how we’re going to survive as a species going out a hundred years. So I guess we’ve traded some of those, uh, earlier issues, uh, for the issues that we have now. And I guess I’m not sure, but to me, uh, the survival of our species is, is pretty stressful, especially for us charged with finding a, you know, a, a better planet for us to be based on, I guess I feel a little anxiety about that and maybe a little nostalgic for the days when it was just colour of someone’s skin that people were, uh, were, uh, were worried about and, uh, and fighting for that might be an easier battle than finding a planet to feed and, uh, and house our species.

The impact of putting systems in place that help us achieve our goals can be extraordinarily empowering.

The world is filled with unfulfilled dreams, right? I want to be an astronaut, right. I want to be a starship captain. Well, sure that’s great. But if I don’t do anything about it, if I don’t take the steps to do it, then obviously it’s just a dream that will always be unrealised. So it’s great to be able to say, I want to be a starship captain. Okay, great. That seems pretty unlikely. Let’s assume there are starships and you want to be a starship captain, right? So then you break it down into, well, what does that mean? Well, it means I have to be able to be a captain while captain’s first are, you know, some lower rank and or they go through the basic starship training and, or they know how to operate these. And people who do that in first get recruited into the galactic command are those who tend to have had an either engineering background or a mathematics background, right. Or whatever. So do I have those backgrounds, right. Et cetera. Right. So you can look at those stages of whatever it might be.

You know, years ago I was heavier and I wanted to be able to lose weight. And I just love food that is not conducive to me losing weight or being healthy. So I love Star Trek, and I wanted to watch this whole new, this series, uh, deep space nine. This is back before streaming. So I went and got the DVD collection, major investment of the series of Star Trek, deep space nine. And then I went to Walmart and got a $99 treadmill set up the treadmill right in front of the screen. But I was not allowed to watch an episode of Star Trek unless I was on the treadmill and the treadmill was right in front of the screen. So what was I doing?  I was taking something I otherwise didn’t want to do or wasn’t doing, but I made it impossible for myself not to do it. Why? Because I really wanted to watch that Star Trek. And I, there was nowhere to sit right in front of the screen, all there was as a treadmill. So obviously I have to get on the treadmill. All right. I’m standing on the treadmill. I might as well turn it on. Right. So I set up a framework through which it was impossible not to do it. Then I was on the treadmill and I was like, Oh, you know, pretty busy, I had a lot of work to do. I needed to get a little extra work done. So I’m like, well, if I’m going to be on the treadmill, I was like, let me just go. So I went to, Lowe’s got a couple brackets and a couple, you know, pieces of wood. And I built, uh, like a table that sat across the, uh, treadmill. So then I started getting a little work done and then watching Star Trek while I was on the treadmill. And that led me to then just working while I was on the treadmill desk, which I then now do to this day. And of course nowadays they actually have things built that you can buy that are tops for your treadmill. And they actually even build originally intended to be treadmill desks. And it’s the only way that I am able to work. And as a result of it, I walk, you know, seven to eight miles minimum every single day.

While at almost every stage of my professional life, I have felt like that work I was doing was the most fulfilling. I loved it, I was utterly passionate about it. It was what I needed to do for my entire life’s work. I have always left myself open to other ideas, but in that process of change, of being open, certain things right need to potentially change. And I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re left behind. Um, right. So if I were to just look and say, oh, did I leave Sphinx behind (Sphinx is the organisation that I founded) for sure not right, of course not. Um, because those people and the mission and all of that are still, you know, deep parts of, of my life. So I don’t think we necessarily need to leave things behind, but there are certain activities, right? So the day to day work with my wife or with those people on the Sphinx team, I no longer do that, I do something in addition.

There are certain things that you have to recognise will change when you make a transformation. However, I do think when we make decisions like that, it’s important for us to understand what are the things that we know we must preserve that we must keep because we hold them so dear. For example, one of the things was the connection with my wife, with my life partner. So a thing that we knew we needed to preserve was our deep engagement with one another on what we work on. And what we did not want to do is end up like many couples where their work’s just separate and they really don’t know much about what each other does. We had chosen not to live that way. We chose to live in a way where our work is deeply intertwined with one another, where we talk about where we share each other’s work experience. So when that was natural for 20 years, that was fine. But then when it no longer was because we were at different workplaces, we had to intentionally preserve that. And so that was a key thing.

Time and distance from an issue, give you the ability to reflect upon it in a way that can often, I think, change the intensity of it. I think that’s often how we can always look back a bit nostalgic on times in the past, not realizing how hard they actually were. And I’m sure people back then look back nostalgically on times, uh, earlier. And, uh, didn’t really realise how technology and other things had helped their lives. And in the end it would be great if I could send a phone message back to, uh, the people and say, uh, the year 2021 way back then I’d probably send a message saying, you know, spend a little more time worrying about, uh, your climate and, uh, and how, uh, the ecosystem is evolving on your planet and, uh, get, uh, get your shit together as a planet and, uh, stop these absurd little divisive issues and come together because you could have really solved it far more easily then than us needing to build spaceships and colonies on different planets. If you just, would’ve done a little more thoughtful and strategic work and, uh, brought some technology to bear and made some sacrifices, we all in your future would be, uh, living a lot, better a life and a happier existence.

Ability to help change someone else’s life, whether on an individualised basis or philanthropically on a systemic basis. That drives me. And so I think that those philosophies, those principles are my constellation. They’re my North Star. They are the equivalent when I’m out on a boat at night and looking up at the sky and have a sense of where I am and where I want to go. It’s those principles. It’s those philosophies that are the stars in my nighttime sky.