One day a truck driver tipped a full trailer over in the parking lot of the manufacturing plant where I worked my way through college. As the low person on the totem pole, I got sent outside to untangle, unload, and re-stack the contents.
An hour later, the plant manager poked his head in the trailer. I expected him to remind me of the urgency of the task. Or to ask for an estimated completion time. Or to tell me a better way to get the job done.
Instead he said, "What do you want me to do?" And we spent the next five hours unloading the truck.
It was weird at first. I was accustomed to hierarchy, and structure, and clearly defined roles. I had heard bosses were capable of physical labor, but I had never witnessed it firsthand.
But I slowly grew more comfortable, mostly because we didn't talk much. He didn't pretend to want to get to know me. He didn't ask for input he wouldn't actually consider, much less use.
In fact, I only remember one thing he said. We had just struggled to clear an awkward tangle of boxes and pallets, only to find that the front half of the trailer looked even worse.
"Well," he said, hands on hips. "This f-ing sucks." And then we got back to work.
When I walked into the locker room at the end of the day, a co-worker yelled, "College boy. Spending quality time with the boss!"
But it hadn't been quality time. It wasn't planned. It wasn't "special." Those hours were what Jerry Seinfeld calls "garbage time."
As Seinfeld says in relation to spending time with his kids:
I'm a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about "quality time" -- I always find that a little sad when they say, "We have quality time."
I don't want quality time. I want the garbage time. That's what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o'clock at night when they're not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that's what I love.
Because that's when real life happens.
Garbage time is when a moment is not planned and optimized to within an inch of its life. When a conversation is not fraught with meaning and purpose. When an interaction or event is not filled with expectation -- and accompanied by the resulting pressure to live up to those expectations.
Over the next few years, the plant manager held regular all-hands meetings. Lots of planning and preparation took place ahead of time. They were supposed to be impactful. To foster a sense of meaning and purpose. To be special. The plant-wide meetings were "quality time."
And were a waste of time.
We never worked harder afterwards. Or smarter. Or more as a team. All the charts and graphs and management-speak were more off-putting than inspiring; the build-up was so great that the actual never lived up to the expectation.
But I did walk out of that trailer wanting to work a little harder. Wanting to work a little smarter. Wanting to help the plant manager achieve the goals he set. (And willing to help him out, a couple decades later, when our roles were somewhat reversed and he needed a job.)
Not because of anything he said.
But because we had spent garbage time together.
Garbage time is the best time. With co-workers. With employees. With friends and family, and especially your kids.
Garbage time isn't weighted by the expectation that a moment will be special and memorable and perfect.
Garbage time just is.
Garbage time is when you learn a little more about who people are. When they learn a little more about you.
When relationships are not forced, but naturally formed.