What Shonda Rhimes taught me about saying 'yes'

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I’m a pro at saying no.

Nope, sorry, I can’t make it to drinks. Nah, that movie looks terrible. No, thank you, this job isn’t quite right for me.


Saying no is an important skill in setting boundaries, defining what you want, and preemptively escaping uncomfortable situations. And in those respects, that’s a great thing. So much free time! Free time to think about everything you rejected?

It’s also a path to a predictable life—one that constricts around you.

Which brings me to Shonda Rhimes. Yes, that Shonda Rhimes. You see, despite her outward success, Rhimes was also a pro at saying no—and this ultimately led her to write her new self-help memoir Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.


Rhimes, of course, created Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, and she executive produces How to Get Away with Murder. She's breathed life into dozens of characters you can probably quote. Crack open her brain and you’ll find crazy plots and long, staccato speeches delivered by her beautiful, groundbreaking casts. Rhimes is very good at making must-see television.

But despite reaching the apex of the entertainment world—and owning Thursday nights, when legions of fans tweet their hearts out during every plot twist and commercial break—she wasn’t enjoying her success.

This introverted Midwestern girl with Coke-bottle glasses grew up into a Hollywood-dwelling, glass ceiling-shattering introverted woman. Never mind that hundreds of people’s jobs hinge on her writing, on creating worlds out of thin air, on “laying the track for a speeding train” as she calls it. She’s got that covered. Introverts can get work done. It’s just that after work, they go home. They put on their pajamas. They pour a glass of wine. And they say no.

Then one Thanksgiving Rhimes was talking to her sister Delorse, one of her five siblings who’s wonderful but not all that impressed with her resume. Shonda told her about all the wonderful invitations she received. Cool parties. Celebrity parties. Look-at-me-I’m-an-A-lister parties.


Rhimes wanted to impress her—because despite her external success, she still longed for that far more elusive kind of praise: sibling approval. Instead, Delorse didn’t care. Her sister said words that burned in her brain: You never say yes to anything.

Ding! This is where Rhimes’s story begins.

Basically she took that statement and ran with it as far and fast as any type-A person would. She decided to say yes to everything. For a year.


Why is this brilliant? Mainly, she eliminates second guessing. It’s the difference between going on a low-Oreo or no-Oreo diet. (Feel free to fill in “Oreo” with your vice of choice.) One option is debate-proof. You simply avoid all Oreos. But trying to go low-Oreo can devolve into hours spent rationalizing: Well, does that mean two Oreos today? Or two sleeves?

Saying yes to everything means freeing up your brain for more important things.

Self-help books can tiptoe around blanket “yes” statements: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” is the longwinded version of Rhimes’s quick and dirty version: Say yes. (And now my fingers are crossed for a Shondaland movie version of Jim Carrey’s Yes Man.) The power of Rhimes's philosophy is in its directness.


There is simple beauty in her book, in the way it humanizes someone who creates other humans for a living. Like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, Rhimes dances off the page. She admits to playing in the pantry as a kid, inventing stories and friends, being a bookish nerd. She doesn’t sugarcoat being a single mom of three girls—in fact, she name checks people who help care for her children, and calls out celebrities for pretending they manage huge careers and their home life without help. In that way, Rhimes is relatable in ways other authors who blithely assert “just do it all!” are not. Also, as one might expect, she writes just the way her characters talk—and it’s endlessly entertaining.


But back to saying yes. Mostly Rhimes was terrified of being the public eye—her publicist was used more as human shield than outreach tool. During her “Year of Yes,” she gives the commencement speech at Dartmouth, her alma mater; guest stars on The Mindy Project and Jimmy Kimmel Live; and actually enjoys her success. She learns to own it: “I am smart, I am talented, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way and I work really, really hard. Don’t call me lucky. Call me a badass,” she writes. Oh yeah, she also says “yes” to taking back her health, and loses over 100 pounds. In a year. While running two television shows, producing a third, and raising three girls.

This is the part where I should feel lazy, right?

I should feel like even if I only accomplished one of those things—reaching the apex of the entertainment world, owning Thursday nights, giving the commencement speech at my alma mater, taking back my health, or raising three girls—that should be enough. (By the way, Rhimes told Terry Gross that she receives 2,500 emails a day, but because she said yes to having a life, she doesn’t respond after 7 p.m.—inspiration to us all.) But Rhimes doesn’t have time for laziness. And she doesn’t settle for what’s “enough.”


She is too busy writing a whole book about how her “Year of Yes” changed her, opened her up, made her more vulnerable and interesting and friendly and less scared of doing.

During her “Year of Yes,” Rhimes also says yes to who she really is, and that’s someone who’s not a doormat to pushy friends, who plops down on the ground in a ball gown to play with her kids, who doesn’t get married because other people think she should.


In the end, she’s advocating for you to step outside—into the sun, as Olivia might say—and say yes to what you actually want. She’s saying there’s no point in half-lives full of fear and knee-jerk nos. She’s pushing you to consider there’s always more. More happiness. More standing in the sun. More ways to say yes. And there’s not a single bit of shame in wanting—and actually enjoying—it all.

Kara Cutruzzula is a writer and editor covering culture, travel, and the occasional life hack. She rhymes with Methuselah and lives in New York.

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