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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Mark Hsu of ‘Dear Kids Books’ Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Personal stories are the way to capture our legacy, what we want to convey to our progeny about our experiences, our cultures, our belief systems. It’s how we connect to the next generation and the generation after that.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Hsu.

Until his daughters were about four or five years old, every time New York City attorney Mark Hsu boarded a plane for work, the same thought came to his mind: “No matter how much time I’ve spent with my kids, if this plane goes down, they won’t remember a single thing about me.”

What followed was a seven-year project where Mark wrote down life advice for his children, which culminated in his book Please Open in the Event of My Death. Poignant, astute and often hilarious (as hinted at by the deliberately unwieldy subtitle A Father’s Advice to His Daughters in Case Something Horrible Happens (Which Hopefully It Won’t But Just in Case…)), Mark draws upon his childhood, personal and work experiences to describe the unwritten rules of the world, those that many of us have learned by a certain age but rarely put down on paper.

While writing his book, Mark heard from other parents about how they wished they had done the same. The result is Dear Kids Books, a dedicated publishing service for parents and elders who seek to share their legacy with the next generation through a customized book. In collaborating with Gotham Ghostwriters and Mascot Books, Mark hopes that Dear Kids Books will inspire other parents to memorialize their stories, with a lot less stress.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My father was a deep-cover CIA spy. Although I didn’t find this out until I was 13, it obviously had a huge impact on who I became. We moved around a lot, within the U.S. and to Tokyo and Rome, which was tough in the moment but gave me a unique perspective of Eastern and Western cultures. I think I inherited his ability to size up people and observe social dynamics. And he was prepared for every worst-case scenario — we would be walking down the street in Rome and he would tell me what to do if a bomb went off. So you can see that it’s not too difficult to draw a correlation between his meticulous planning for any contingency with my desire to write a book for my kids in the event I passed before my time.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

One summer during high school, on my father’s recommendation, I read Power: How to Get It, How to Use It, written by Michael Korda, who was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster’s book imprint for almost 40 years. Power was a quintessential business book of the 70s, setting forth Machiavellian ways to manipulate others, to place yourself in a better position, to basically win at life.

This book influenced me on a couple of levels. First, I noticed that the slightest detail — such as the color of a tie or your handshake or your body language — could have a significant effect on the way that others perceived you. All of these minute details can make a huge difference cumulatively.

The other emotion I distinctly remember was despair. It depressed the crap out of me. While the book seemed uncannily accurate in detailing the realism of the world, the idea that life was this bloodthirsty zero-sum game where having a set of morals was actually a disadvantage was very scary to 16-year-old me. And on some level, I wanted to write a counterpoint to Power. I wanted to give my children a realistic view of the world and describe how people actually act and think, but I also needed to make sure that they grew up with a more optimistic and humanistic perspective.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I did an internship for the SEC my last semester in law school. If a case needed to be put into proper format or an opinion letter needed to be proofread for typos, then I was the right person. But I didn’t exercise any independent thought. I just assumed my role was to follow orders.

So one day I was trailing my boss as she was walking down the hallway and asking a number of questions, and she was kind of answering them absent-mindedly, and then she came to a halt and said, “Come on, think like a lawyer.” I vividly recall the exasperation in her voice. I’m not sure whether others heard it but my embarrassment was so acute that she may as well have pulled out a bullhorn and yelled it for the whole world to hear.

It was one of the best things that someone could have said to me. I think early in our careers, we expect there to be a nice little playbook for every situation, when in fact life can be a variation of previous events where we need to apply what we’ve learned and improvise. And quite frankly, if she hadn’t used that bullhorn and screamed it at me and cause all time to stop, then it probably wouldn’t have sunk in.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

Please Open in the Event of My Death is the flagship book of Dear Kids Books, which was created so that parents and elders can leave their personal stories for their children and their loved ones. Personal stories are the way to capture our legacy, what we want to convey to our progeny about our experiences, our cultures, our belief systems. It’s how we connect to the next generation and the generation after that.

I had suffered through seven years of 4 a.m. writing sessions and trying to compose sentences while waiting on subway platforms and sitting at the airport. I didn’t see any alternative. But it doesn’t need to be that difficult for other parents who don’t have the time or don’t consider themselves good writers or need help sticking to a schedule. When there’s a talented editorial partner who is able to draw out these stories and lessons, parents can create similar books that will be just as impactful.

With Dear Kids Books, parents can be matched up with a compatible writer or editor, depending on their needs, and choose the kind of book that they want to leave for their children and others. Do they want one that’s almost a short story, with 15 printed hardcover copies for distribution to closest family and friends? Or do they feel that they have a unique and marketable story that will appeal to a wider audience, with the marketing and publishing expertise of an established publisher?

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I feel fortunate that many readers have mentioned different chapters as being the most entertaining, which usually involve relatable experiences. There’s a chapter dedicated to fear and is centered around my increasingly desperate search for my first job out of law school, which involved stumbling into a judge’s chambers on a pair of crutches and later led to me telling another judge that I was “in the area” for an interview when I was 600 miles away.

People have also responded very well to the chapter on dealing with heartbreak, which most of us have gone through and is a necessary part of the human condition. Mine happened to involve an Expedia travel representative and is embarrassingly entertaining but also holds a larger lesson to be learned as well.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

As I was writing my book and telling other parents about this project I was doing on the side, I was struck by the number of people who really liked the idea of leaving their children with their stories. We get caught up in our lives and many of our lessons and stories eventually get passed down to our kids — assuming that we even make it that far. As the pandemic has demonstrated, life is fragile. There’s no guarantee that we’ll have the luxury of reminiscing about our past on our terms.

And as I thought about and wrote the advice for my own children, I was also realizing that other parents would say something different, or maybe even contrary to what I wrote. I like to think I’ve written about moments and lessons that all parents can appreciate, but there are infinite variations of books that could be addressed from parents to their children.

Finally, another revelatory moment was when I was first speaking with Naren Aryal, the CEO of my publishing partner Mascot Books, and Dan Gerstein, the CEO of our editorial service partner Gotham Ghostwriters. I was fascinated to learn about the growing use of custom publishing services and ghostwriting. I think I underestimated how much some people hate writing or don’t have the patience for it. And it’s interesting to see how this type of service is often given as a gift to older people as a way to encourage them to reveal more about themselves and share with the younger ones.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My book is addressed directly to my two girls, but with the assumption that they are adults, with corresponding anecdotes and language. I’ve been surprised and flattered by a number of my contemporaries who have said that they’ve applied certain lessons to their own lives.

The most stirring and impactful stories are usually those that directly affect us. There may be a limited number of people who will find a random parent’s story to resonate and be touching, but it would be a lifelong, indelible memory for that child. To have a record of your parent’s story, told through a skilled writer, is almost a tangible item of love. It’s without price.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I’m going to sound like I’m 90 years old, but hear me out.

I’m pushing back against a world with shorter attention spans, where things go viral and then disappear. I’m pushing back against a world where people crave that attention, however fleeting, and where celebrity, no matter how it’s attained, is the desired currency. I’m pushing back against snap judgments, artificiality and shortcuts, which have mushroomed in an age of social media.

You simply can’t express your world view or your values or your seminal experiences in a tweet or a post or a video. It takes hard work and nuance — to go through life lesson experiences, to make a record of them, to think further about what you believe in, to edit and refine as you age. And I noticed that my writing was therapeutic. I was able to do some self-reflection and where necessary, recalibrate myself. It also had a pleasant effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy: I wrote the words, then tried to practice what I preached, and because those words were fresh in my head, repeated them to the girls while I was writing. I think that you can become a better parent when you write a book about what you believe in.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership in a work or social setting is similar to being a parent. Much as your child will look at you and emulate your behavior, your actions as a leader will set the tone for others in terms of your work ethic, your personal ethic, your attitude.

The older I get, the more I see rules as guidelines rather than strict regulations, which probably sounds really alarming coming from an attorney. But no one is inspired by a strict rule follower. The best leaders are those who look at the purpose behind a rule and are able to compromise or find solutions or workaround mandates. Now, if things go wrong as a result of not adhering to the rule, then you also need to be prepared to take the heat and fall on your sword if necessary. But that’s part of the responsibility of the leadership role.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

In the chapter about work, I wanted to give three rules that obviously don’t have any guarantee of success, but can give my children more control over their careers, briefly summarized as follows:

  1. There’s no substitute for hard work. It doesn’t mean that you have to work hard to be successful. It doesn’t even mean that hard work will automatically lead to success. But you will be in an undoubtedly better position as a result. Hard work is the great equalizer, which can make up for deficiencies in social class, intelligence, education, appearance or even your personal character.
  2. Assuming that you’re conscientious and you work hard, one of your biggest liabilities may end up being that you beat yourself up over mistakes and begin to second-guess yourself. Having a selective memory, where you can take lessons from past mistakes but not be paralyzed by impending ones, becomes crucial.
  3. The older you get and the more established you become, it’s important to create boundaries. Your office shouldn’t be your family, your job shouldn’t be your identity, and you need to keep work stress from affecting your home.
  4. With regard to social skills, I would have counseled my younger self to not have pride about reaching out to people. The fear of social rejection definitely hampered me as I was growing up. I wish I had more of an ability to shake things off and not be a grudge holder, to simply shrug and move on to meet new people.
  5. Finally, there’s no downside to kindness unless you’re an attorney.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My idol is basketball legend Larry Bird and I’ve always kept in mind one attributed to him: “Life is like your jump shot. Once it leaves your hands, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

They seem to be fatalistic words, that you don’t have control over outcomes and you need to literally let things go. But the subtext is also about the time and effort you put in before the ball leaves your hands. You can do everything within your power in pursuit of that pure and accurate shot. These words are a beautiful balance of willpower and fate. It’s also possible that my love of Larry Bird has caused me to read too much into this quote.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I’d want to learn, laugh and meet someone who has attained success while appearing to be a kind and normal human being. I miss Jon Stewart.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For my latest briefs, they can go through the electronic dockets of the New York court system … they probably don’t want to do that. Actually, with work, home and parental duties, Instagram/Facebook end up being my lone creative writing outlet. I’m @pleaseopenbook.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you for this opportunity.

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Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects