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John Fitch & Max Frenzel: “Don’t confuse busyness with productivity”

MAX: I hope our readers will be more conscious about where in their own life they are confusing busyness with productivity. I also want them to get rid of the guilt many of us have around time off and leisure. Instead, I hope our readers see these as the powerful sources of creativity and meaning that […]

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MAX: I hope our readers will be more conscious about where in their own life they are confusing busyness with productivity. I also want them to get rid of the guilt many of us have around time off and leisure. Instead, I hope our readers see these as the powerful sources of creativity and meaning that they are.

JOHN: Rest is essential. Time off and time on is as crucial as your inhale and exhale. The rhythm between the two is what makes life interesting. You deserve to have a rest ethic, and I believe it is what propels us into a future filled with more abundance, creativity, and human dignity.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Fitch & Max Frenzel co-authors of the new book Time Off.

Max Frenzel (Tokyo) and John Fitch (Austin) have both spent time working in software startups where many are worshiping the “busyness” mantras that are so pervasive in our current working culture. Max got his Ph.D. in Quantum Physics and has been an AI researcher. John is an entrepreneur and business coach.

At breaking points in both of their careers, they realized that many of today’s commonly held beliefs around work aren’t useful, but destructive. As a result, they decided to be more intentional and deliberate with their approaches to work and time off. Their quality of work and life has improved ever since, and they now want to share that transformation with others.

Aside from improving your quality of life, John and Max (who have both had experience with building AI applications) will also give a glimpse of why time off and creativity will be a crucial component to the future of human work.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

MAX: After doing my Ph.D. in Quantum Information Theory, I wanted to do something more applied and use my math skills to solve real-world problems, so I joined an AI startup. I enjoyed working on AI, but the company culture really did not align with my beliefs. That is what led me to start writing about topics related to work, culture, and time off. Eventually, I decided to leave that company. I stayed in AI but began focusing more on its creative and artistic applications. I was able to find a company with a much better culture. I also started writing more about AI and creativity.

JOHN: Books have been my go-to solution for feeding my curiosity. If there is something I want to figure out or a world I want to get lost in, I find my answers in books. An elementary teacher long ago told me that I could write a book one-day because she thought I was gifted at the art and science of storytelling. At the time, I didn’t believe her. Authors were god-like beings who created magical pages that transported me to another place. That teacher planted a subconscious seed that didn’t bear fruit until I was in my late twenties. One morning I woke up from a dream about that moment with that kind teacher. I rose out of bed, broke free from that story in my head, and started my first book outline. Encouraging the youth really matters.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

MAX: I’m not sure if it’s the most interesting, but it’s definitely one of the most impactful: I decided to rent a house in the mountains of a tiny Greek island for three months to write my Ph.D. thesis and teach myself about AI. It was at the same time a beautiful holiday and one of the most productive times of my life. And I even saved money compared to my tiny studio flat in London.

JOHN: I became a recovering workaholic after my business partners more-or-less forced me on a mini-sabbatical. I traveled to Greece and learned about a new understanding of life quality. During that time, my perception of work and leisure went through a paradigm shift. I have been writing and thinking about the importance of leisure ever since. By taking deep time off for the first time in my life, it felt like life’s saturation increased by 5X. I now take time off so seriously we decided to write a book about the topic!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

MAX: To be honest, I never really aspired to become an author; it kind of just happened. But what made it happen was sharing my work, putting myself out there, and continuing to write articles about all the different things that inspired me. Initially, there was not much response, but as my body of work built up, so did the opportunities and connections that came from it. That was also how John found me and how we eventually came to write this book together.

JOHN: My biggest challenge was actually writing. I dislike writing. I mean writing in the “start from a blank piece of paper” kind of way. I am a talker. I can talk about an issue for hours. I made the simple decision to take all of the audio of me talking about a subject and use software to transcribe it. Once all of my talks and interviews were laid out in front of me as text, I then started curating and editing. It turns out, I am damn good at that and enjoy it. I am not good at typing a paragraph on a blank word processor. So my “writing process” is actually recording a ton of voice memos, uploading the transcription to a document, and then editing and remixing that text.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

MAX: When I started writing about work culture, it was my way of processing and organizing my own thoughts on the topic and figuring out why I felt unhappy in my job. I shared my articles in our company Slack channel to inspire others and share my opinion. One day when I published and shared an article questioning the value of most meetings, our CEO was furious and told me to stop writing entirely. Well, I didn’t, I just stopped sharing those articles on our company Slack.

JOHN: I would try to change words to sound smart. My method was to take words that weren’t that fancy and attempt to upgrade them through a thesaurus. My writing needed bigger, academic terms! Quickly test readers let me know that the writing did not sound like me, and the material felt stiff and pretentious. Oops! So, I learned one of the best pieces of writing advice I can think of. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it you.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

MAX: Besides Time Off, which is definitely the most exciting project I have ever worked on, I am also currently starting a new position as R&D Lead in a company focusing on AI systems for hospitality/travel and crisis management. On a more personal level, I’m pretty excited about baking sourdough bread, as well as getting back into music production and live performance.

JOHN: My co-author and I both have worked in software and artificial intelligence. So, now that our book Time Off has shipped, we are thinking about products and services that help people design their rest ethic, prevent burnout, and increase their creativity. Both of us are fascinated by the intersection of artificial intelligence and human creativity.

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

MAX: The book is full of great stories, so this is kind of like picking your favorite child. One story I like is about the invention of the maser, the direct predecessor of the laser. The American physicist Charles Townes was inspired to the discovery by a Russian SciFi novel featuring a death ray, and thanks to that beat the actual Russian scientists to the development, all in the early days of the Cold War. And his breakthrough insight came to him while sitting on a park bench looking at some beautiful flowers.

JOHN: There are many, but I have one that is simple and profound. One of the chapters in Time Off dives into the importance of play. I tell a story about an interaction I have with a small group of kids on a playground. They pitched me on an amazing vision of the future. In short, they were more genius and imaginative than most business leaders I coach. The child’s mind is something we don’t have to lose. We need it more than ever because we need big ideas that shift the way we thrive together on this small pale blue dot.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

MAX: I hope our readers will be more conscious about where in their own life they are confusing busyness with productivity. I also want them to get rid of the guilt many of us have around time off and leisure. Instead, I hope our readers see these as the powerful sources of creativity and meaning that they are.

JOHN: Rest is essential. Time off and time on is as crucial as your inhale and exhale. The rhythm between the two is what makes life interesting. You deserve to have a rest ethic, and I believe it is what propels us into a future filled with more abundance, creativity, and human dignity.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

MAX:

· Read a lot! Books are made of books, and the more you read, the more ideas you expose yourself to. Then, you can combine and synthesize these ideas with your own unique thoughts, views, and experiences.

· Live an interesting life! If you want interesting material to write about, go out and do things that are interesting, or talk to people who have done unique things or have unconventional views.

· Find a good editor! Before working on our own book, I had no idea how much influence a good editor has on a book. Get someone who is brutally honest, and then be willing to accept and work with their feedback. It’s maybe the best investment you can make in your book.

· Build a great team! John and I wrote this book together, and we brought very different perspectives to the table. For example, I have more of an academic background, and John has more of a storytelling background. Even our experiences of time off are complementary. In addition to that, we also had an amazing illustrator/artist involved from the very beginning, who worked with our great designer. And I already mentioned the importance of a good editor.

· Treat your book like a product! John and I both have experience building software products, so it felt quite natural to approach the book in the same way: Prototyping, getting it in the hands of actual test readers early on, and adjusting the ideas along the way. The same goes for marketing.

JOHN:

  1. More Periods. It is easy to write long sentences. Tell the same story, but use more periods. Short sentences are like good drums in a song. They are simple and preserve the pace.
  2. Read Meta. Don’t just read books for the story, read and analyze how the author decided to write the story. I like reading a book for the story first and then analyzing the author’s style on the second read.
  3. Prototype. I have designed software products. It is smart to build an early prototype and share it with users to help you make it better. Do the same with your book idea. I like starting with just a table of contents concept and asking people how to make it better. It will empower your roadmap and creative enthusiasm because it gets you out of your own head. You’ll be energized by the clarity of what to work on next.
  4. Read Aloud. Read your paragraphs to people. They will tell you what sucks, and you will probably figure it out before they do. People sort of talk in their heads while they read, so your writing should sound lovely when you read it. If it doesn’t, you probably need better anecdotes or more periods!
  5. Honor the Habit. I asked David Allen (Author of Getting Things Done) for writing advice. He said, “But in the chair. Hands-on the keyboard. Repeat.” Damnit, he was right. With anything you want to get decent at, you have to put in the reps. Four days of consistent shitty writing eventually unlocks a day where brilliant writing finally occurs. If you need inspiration for a writing habit, think about it as an investment in one of the most critical skills — expressing yourself.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

MAX: Definitely reading. My day starts and ends with reading. I get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and read non-fiction for an hour before switching on any electronic devices. In the evening before going to bed, I switch everything off again and read fiction with a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

JOHN: Choose the different hats you can wear as a writer and then put on the right one at the right time. Monday, I am the expressive storyteller. Tuesday, I am the brutal, essentialist editor. Wednesday, I am an architect of paragraphs. Thursday, I zoom out and analyze the overall structure of the content. The point is that at any given moment, I am not trying to be all of the different writer hats at once. I pick one and embody it for that writing session.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

MAX: For me, creativity is really connecting distant dots and combining ideas from different domains, so I think reading widely — and fiction as well as non-fiction — is really the key for me. But I guess the most direct influence on my writing comes from “self-help” or business books. Some great recent examples include David Epstein’s Range, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and Austin Kleon’s Keep Going.

JOHN: Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is filled with short paragraphs that send me off into deep thought and reflection. I deeply admire minimal text that has maximum impact. I think about it as wisdom-density. Anytime I am struggling with an expression in my writing, I will read translations of Lao Tzu, and I am quickly reminded to simplify the message I am designing.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

MAX: Starting a movement is exactly what we hope to do with Time Off. We hope that people will recognize the importance of leisure, not just as a way to recharge for their work and stay competitive in a world where busy-work is becoming less and less valuable thanks to AI, but also as a way to fill their lives with meaning.

JOHN: Our book Time Off is a manifesto for a societal return to noble leisure. Instead of trying to emulate machines, we will double down on our humanity. So, after everyone reads our book, more of us will prioritize leisure above work and invest more time into the experiences that bring us meaning happiness, connection, safety, and creativity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website: https://www.timeoffbook.com/

Link to Buy Book: https://checkoutpage.co/checkout/5ea21a7da8430c0015be8d20/time-off-book-presale

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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