“Instead of being obsessed with problems, I focus on the people whose lives can be changed by the work”, with Simon Tam
I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Tam, an author, musician, activist, and self-proclaimed troublemaker.
Best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock, he recently founded a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships and mentorship to young artist-activists of color.
In 2017, he won a landmark case at the U.S Supreme Court, unanimously, helping to expand civil liberties for marginalized groups.
His work has been highlighted in more than 2,500 media features across over 150 countries, including Rolling Stone, TIME, NPR, and the New York Times.
Thank you so much for joining us! Let’s show everyone you’re a normal human being. What are your hobbies, favorite places to visit, pet peeves? Tell us about YOU when you’re not at the office.
“I love traveling to all corners of this amazing planet, especially to try new foods, exploring other cultures, and to meet different people. Perhaps it’s why I love touring as a musician and a speaker so much; it’s opportunity to combine my passion with my work!
“When I’m not on stage or behind a desk, I really enjoy reading. Stories are just a different way to travel and experience other worlds. I especially love memoirs and studying classic philosophy.”
Can you tell us something about you that few people know?
“Despite having a fairly public life and a career that’s been built mostly behind a microphone, I’m fairly introverted and am usually quite reserved. I really enjoy what I do but after spending a few months on the road with my band, I’m usually left exhausted.
“One of the ways I recharge when I’m in the middle of a tour is simply taking time to go for a long walk by myself. On a recent tour, I spent a day walking almost the entirety of New York City from end to end before taking the stage in the middle of Times Square. It was one of my favorite moments ever!”
Do you have any exciting projects going on right now?
“I’m working on several big projects right now: I’m writing a memoir about my band’s journey to the Supreme Court, working on a musical theater show based on my life, and just started a new nonprofit organization to help young artist-activist stir up more trouble.
“It’s really exciting to continue sharing my art and deep passion for lifting up marginalized voices in new and different ways. Also, I recently launched a daily podcast show called Music Business Hacks where I provide advice for over 20,000 musicians each day!”
Many people say success correlates with the people you meet in your life. Can you describe two that most impacted your success and why.
“I was really fortunate to get some wonderful mentors from a young age. One was a local pastor named Allen Diaz who was helping with orphanages, rehabilitation centers, and community centers in Mexico. He once told me, ‘There are three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen, and those who wonder, what the heck just happened?!’ Be someone who makes things happen.
“That advice has profoundly impacted nearly every area of my life and has become the mantra for my entrepreneurship.”
“With The Slants, I can honestly say that our work would not have been such a success if it were not for my good friend and publicist Alex Steininger. Since 2007, Alex has tirelessly worked on our PR campaigns and was able to juggle unbelievable demands from thousands of journalists when we were going through our very public battle with the government. He’s taught me to truly appreciate tenacity, persistence, and patience in an industry that often lacks it.”
Can you discuss one of the lowest points in your life personally or professionally and how you dealt with it.
“A few years ago, I felt like my entire world was crashing down. Over the course of 11 months, I lost my best friend in a tragic accident, we had to part ways with the lead singer of my band during a crucial time, I was on the losing end of a major legal battle with the U.S government, and my fiancé left me. Everything was falling apart, and I was a mess emotionally, physically, and mentally.
“I started shifting my focus to meditate on the things that I had instead of looking at what I lacked. I would begin each day by reflecting on things I was grateful for and looking for opportunities to extend compassion to other people in meaningful ways.
“I started getting more involved with organizations that I cared about, like the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO). I found that the more I would give to others through service, the better I felt, so I kept looking for more ways to positively impact my community. That was the turning point that rescued me.”
Leaders always seem to find ways to overcome their weaknesses. Can you share one or two examples of how you work outside of your comfort zone to achieve success?
“I often tell others that they should do something they dislike everyday simply for the practice. It builds discipline and helps us overcome our weaknesses.
“When you look at my most public battle (a case at the United States Supreme Court), it seemed like I was way out of my league; I didn’t have the resources or training for the fight. However, I poured over every article and textbook that I could find to better understand the law. I met with social justice activists and specialists across 34 states to get more insight into challenging discriminatory practices and policies from the government.
“Rather than only approaching that legal battle from the perspective of an attorney, I would apply the same level of creativity to it as I did for my music career. And, against all odds, we won. We were one of the few cases that won unanimously, ever.”
The concept of mind over matter has been around for years. A contemporary description of this is having mental toughness. Can you give us an example (or two) of obstacles you’ve overcome by getting your mind in the right place (some might call this reframing the situation)?
“Growing up, I had to deal with a lot of bullying, especially because of my Asian-American background. I remember an incident in junior high where students surrounded me and threw basketballs, punches, and rocks at me while hurling racial slurs. They would call me a ‘jap’ and a ‘gook.’
“Finally, I snapped back: ‘I’m a chink. Get it right.’ That immediately stopped them in their tracks.
“Too often, we forget that we can reframe a situation and shift the dynamics of a situation. There’s power in claiming an identity, in re-appropriating hurtful things and stigmatizing labels because it upsets the status quo. That’s why re-appropriation can be so effective. Obviously, that lesson stuck with me when I started an Asian-American band many years later and called it The Slants.”
What are your “3 Lessons I Learned from My Most Memorable Failure”
1) “Sometimes, hurdles can provide a different avenue towards success by providing different perspectives, experiences, and opportunities to level up. I like to think of ‘failures’ as the foundation to learn something new.
2) “More people care about you than you’ll ever know. It’s easy to get stuck in our own minds and think that others are apathetic or ignorant of our struggles. Yet, we often have family and friends who support us in unexpected ways — sometimes they just need to be asked.
3) “No great success was ever achieved without moments of failure. As Beverly Sills says, ‘there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.’”
All entrepreneurs have sleepless nights. We have a term we use with our clients called the “2 a.m. moment.” It’s when you’re wide awake and thinking not-so-positive thoughts about your business choices and future. Describe a 2 a.m. moment (or moments) you’ve had and how you overcame the challenges.
“I experience restless nights all the time, especially since my work is rooted in social justice… the stakes seem higher because of the direct impact of marginalized communities around the world. I often have a 2 a.m. moment when I’m receiving criticism or blowback over the choices I make. It isn’t the critics that I worry about (I don’t put much stock into the white supremacists that send me awful messages). The hardest part is when you’re conflicted over something with people you care for.
“In these moments, I think it’s important to step back and look at the larger picture instead of the short-term experiences. I’ll often turn to mentors and ask them to throw the most challenging questions or criticism possible at me. if I can answer with integrity and shared values, we’ll know that I’m on the right track. If I waiver or am only worried about how things reflect on me, then I know I need to be checked.
“We can’t let the little things, or our bruised egos overshadow the bigger story. Instead of being obsessed with problems, I focus on the people whose lives can be changed by the work.”
Nobody likes to fail, and we sure don’t like to admit we failed. Describe a moment when you confided your most closely-held business issues/problems to someone close to you, and how the conversation(s) helped you work through the issue.
“Many years ago, I was managing large fundraisers for cancer research as a Community Relationship Manager at the American Cancer Society. I was given a community that was struggling with their event, especially because they had a stubborn old-timer who refused to make changes (including things that to comply with updated tax laws). It was frustrating and humiliating since he was very influential in that community. Few decisions would be made without him.
“I spoke with my friend Allen who had gone through something similar. As a young pastor taking over an old, stagnant church that was struggling to make ends meet, he encountered a couple of tough board members who wanted to fight him every step of the way. Allen said that he would always prioritize people over politics and find ways to build up the relationship whether they agreed or not. In the end, he won enthusiastic support.
“I started employing the same approach. Rather than fighting against the person, I fought with them on my side instead. I took him out to coffee and asked why cancer research was an area he cared so much about. As he shared his story, I imparted my own, and we both realized how passionate we both were about the work.
“So, then I said, ‘I really admire your work, you’ve done so many great things for this community and I want to help but I don’t know this area like you do. Would you mind helping me? And if I have a suggestion for the team running the event, maybe I can run it by you first and have you present it since you have clout here?’
“After that, he became my biggest supporter. In the end, change wasn’t a problem; he just wanted to be respected and recognized for his previous contributions.
The big lesson is that oftentimes your problem is not your problem. It usually just needs some re-framing or a different focus.”
What unfiltered advice can you give aspiring stars regarding how to avoid common mis-fires in starting their career?
“Too often, people focus on the wrong thing and end up being caught flat footed.
“Many aspiring stars have a deep desire to get more publicity and think if they would just have the opportunity to be on some kind of major platform, they would get their big break…but that’s not the case.
“For most performers, getting a slot on Jimmy Fallon Tonight (Show) would actually be a disfavor because they haven’t actually prepared themselves properly for it.
There’s an adage that those who want to be leaders tomorrow are preparing for that moment today. We should be working everyday as if millions of others were tuning in already. People need to be tenacious, but they also need to be patient.
“Timing is more important than we think.”
What is the best lesson you learned from your worst boss?
“Sincerity doesn’t win over critics, but consistently performing well does. If you can succeed in spite of someone else’s incompetence, it can help develop character, drive, and a work ethic that could be applied to any situation.”
What is one “efficiency hack” you use consistently in your life to keep your time and mind free to focus on your strengths and passions?
“Something that I enjoy doing is blocking out my life in 15-minute chunks. I try and put some discipline and efficiency into bursts of creativity by having small goals that I want to accomplish with the things that I put into my calendar.
“I learned this many years ago when I was a full-time student in a challenging MBA program and working a full-time job while juggling two part-time side hustles, managing three businesses, and serving on the board for six non-profits.
“I started waking up 15 minutes early each day to write. At the end of six months, I had enough material to publish my second book, Music Business Hacks.”
What’s on the drawing board for your next venture?
“The biggest projects on the dashboard now are launching my non-profit organization, finishing my memoir, and helping write a musical. However, I’m also helping produce a documentary film as well as developing a tech company that helps undiscovered artists sell their unique works without a traditional art gallery or collective.”
What did we miss? Feel free to share any other thoughts or advice on overcoming failure, initiatives you’re currently supporting, any other relevant information you would like to share with the readers.
“If someone wants to make an impact, sometimes they should focus less on the scale of ambition and instead look to inject compassion into everything that they do. When you find ways to serve others, especially people who have been overlooked, you’ll often enjoy more success and reward than you ever imagined.
“Zig Ziglar famously said, ‘You can get everything in life that you want if you help enough other people get what they want.’”
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, my handle is @SimonTheTam
This was really awesome, Simon! Thank you so much for joining us!
Slants2016–4682.jpg by Ellenote Photography
Simon.jpg by Sarah Giffrow
ST.jpg by Ellenote Photography
Simon Tam at the Supreme Court by Joe X. Jiang
Chinatown Dance Rock!
The world’s first and only Asian-American dance rock band, as featured on Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, NPR, BBC, CBS, TIME, and 3,000+ radio stations, TV shows, magazines, and websites in over 125+ countries.