Six words were all it took to make Shonda Rhimes — the acclaimed writer and producer behind Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder — reimagine her entire life.
After her older sister bluntly told her, "You never say yes to anything," the TV showrunner set out to say yes to everything that scared her for an entire year.
Rhimes explores the lessons she took away from those 365 days spent outside her comfort zone in her new book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person.
“The years and years of saying no were, for me, a quiet way to let go," she writes. "Saying no was a way to disappear."
Here are seven yeses she had to embrace in order to regain control over her life and hone a strong voice outside of her TV scripts.
1. YES to being honest with others (even strangers).
Rhimes writes that she used to avoid television appearances and speeches at all costs, preferring instead to express herself through her written characters. But at the start of her yearlong project, she vows to say yes to all of them: She laughs alongside Kimmel, gets real with Oprah, and gives a commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth. Before each gig, she asks herself, "What am I afraid they will see if I am really myself?" — a question that ultimately leads her to become more comfortable on the other side of the screen.
2. YES to family, always.
Rhimes has three young daughters at home, and she's honest about how demanding it is to be a working mom. "If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel 100 percent okay, you never get your sea legs, you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing," she writes.
But, during her Year of Yes, when faced with the decision over whether to work or spend some extra time with her kids, she vows to choose the latter every time. She finds that carving out more time for family ultimately gives her an energetic boost that carries over into other areas of her life.
3. YES to uninterrupted personal time.
The unrelenting workload that comes with writing and producing multiple TV shows week after week used to leave Rhimes with little downtime. In an effort to regain some control and set clear boundaries between professional and personal time, she changed her email signature to read: "Please Note: I will not engage in work emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends. IF I AM YOUR BOSS, MAY I SUGGEST: PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE."
Though it proves impossible for her to stick to this proclamation every day ("I fail as often as I succeed," she writes), Rhimes takes full advantage of the time it does clear up, using it to "relight that little spark inside." She pursues those tiny personal escapes that bring a smile to her face — hours spent in a bookstore or moments spent singing Aretha Franklin in the bath. These acts of self-care prove to reduce her stress levels and feed her creativity.
4. YES to working hard in pursuit of her dreams.
Okay, so Rhimes had obviously been working to pursue her dreams long before this challenge began — and she continues to say yes to this hard work over the course of her year. But she also chooses to say no to perfection, for she recognizes that a blind pursuit of it will always lead to disappointment.
"Dreams do not come true just because you dream them… You have to keep moving forward," she urges Dartmouth grads in her commencement speech. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real."
5. YES to getting healthy for the right reasons.
Rhimes lends a strong voice to the body-positivity movement in writing: "Everyone has a right to love their body in whatever size and shape and package it comes in. I will fight for anyone’s right to do so." At the start of the Year of Yes, weighing in at the heaviest she's ever been, Rhimes decides to say yes to getting healthy and sets out to lose weight for a refreshing reason — to feel stronger in her own skin.
She acknowledges that her figure is nobody else's business, and she goes on a diet and exercise plan for herself and herself alone. She ends up losing 115 pounds and falls in love with her new body and the newfound confidence it affords her. Along the path of her weight-loss journey, she realizes that overeating had historically been her way of hiding. It was part of the comfortable routine she was trapped inside, and she had used it to bury stress and stay quiet.
6. YES to blatant acts of self-confidence.
In the wake of her massive success, Rhimes certainly deserves to feel confident (there's an entire TV empire named after her, for Pete's sake). But, before she took on her Year of Yes, she wasn't. She downplayed her triumphs and hushed her milestones so as not to upset anyone. "I worked to appear a little bit sillier and sweeter and simpler in the face of my own greatness. I just wanted everyone else to feel comfortable. Funny thing is, no one ever asked me to do it. It just seemed like what I was supposed to do,” she writes.
But Rhimes now allows herself to say yes to her own blazon "badassery." She unapologetically speaks up for herself. She knows that there's nothing wrong with other people knowing that she's proud of her accomplishments. Taking on a stronger voice has also made her notice more amazing traits in herself and those around her.
7. YES to life without a romantic partner.
Growing up, Rhimes was skeptical of Ken dolls. She writes that she didn't get why her Barbie would ever need a male counterpart with "painted-on hair" and a "hollow head," and she often chose to cast him aside during playtime. Today, she still disagrees with the traditional notion that women need to have a male counterpart in order to be happy.
At the end of her Year of Yes, she says a resounding yes to independence and breaks off a long-term relationship. Though she isn't opposed to marrying or settling down one day, she values a life lived on one's own terms more than one shaped by societal norms. "We spend our lives kicking the crap out of ourselves for not being this way or that way, not having this thing or that thing, not being like this person or that person," she writes. "My happy ending is not your happy ending."
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