Last month, power TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes released her first book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, in which she reveals how a stray observation said to her by her older sister during the Thanksgiving of 2013—“You never say yes to anything”—challenged her to say yes to everything that scared her for one life-changing year.
Like Rhimes, I, too, grew up with a love of storytelling, and as an only child and a latchkey kid, I spent much of my childhood alone in front of a TV. By my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in TV writing. My dad, however, wanted me to pursue a more “traditional” career so that once I moved away from home, I would never move back.
So … fast-forward through law school and a seven-year stint practicing as a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington, D.C. By the time I’d given notice at my firm and packed my boxes to move across the country to Los Angeles to finally pursue my dream of becoming a TV writer, Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy had been on the air for eight years, and Scandal—the first prime-time network drama with a black female lead in almost 40 years—had just come out.
Since then, Rhimes has catapulted from a successful showrunner to the most powerful woman in Hollywood. In the process, she’s made historic strides in diversifying—or, as she calls it, “normalizing”—the television landscape, thereby opening the door for women, gay people and people of color in front of as well as behind the camera. In short, Rhimes is a big deal. In fact, she’s such a big deal to me that I think she and Oprah should have to take separate elevators, for the same reason that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have to take separate planes.
So I enthusiastically cracked open Year of Yes, secretly hoping for the blueprint on how to become Shonda Rhimes. But she talked about how she once dreamed of being Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, only to later realize that she couldn’t be Morrison “because Toni Morrison already had that job.” Fair enough.
So Year of Yes wasn’t a guidebook on how to become Shonda Rhimes, but in it she does reveal a lot about herself. For example, you quickly learn that Rhimes “monologues” just like her characters on Scandal—or, rather, those characters monologue just like her—and Olivia Pope’s red wine habit was fashioned after Rhimes’ own love of red wine.
Also, in Year of Yes, Rhimes covers many of the struggles she overcame during her year of yes, e.g., learning how to accept compliments (Her response: “‘Thank you.’ Smile. Shut up”) and how to have difficult conversations (“‘Freedom lies across the field of the difficult conversation”).
Among the many experiences she relays in Year of Yes, however, five of them stood out to me as the most interesting, insightful and instructive for all of us “doers.” She prefers that term to “dreamers” (“Dreamers often end up living in the basements of relatives, FYI”).
1. Say it loud.
Rhimes has got swag, y’all. For years, she says, she would downplay her accomplishments (“I’m just a writer”) to make other people feel comfortable. As a result of her year of yes, however, Rhimes is owning her “badassery,” and she’s no longer afraid to speak on it. She writes, “You know what I am? 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.” OK, then! She also writes, “Hell, I don’t own Thursday nights for nothing.” I retched back and dusted off a “Get it, girl!”
2. Yes is terrifying … at first.
“I thought saying yes would feel good,” she writes. Instead, the thought of saying yes to things that scared her, like going on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, caused her to develop a nervous twitch in her left eye. But after she finally did Kimmel and didn’t die from the experience, she remarked, “YES does feel like the sun.”
3. Don’t believe your own hype.
In December 2013, Grey’s and Scandal were on the air. Private Practice had just finished its run, and How to Get Away With Murder was in the oven. “So yeah, from the outside, I think everything probably looked great,” she writes. But she finally had to admit to herself, “I am miserable.”
This lesson served as a reminder not to buy whatever it is that you’re selling, but to be honest with yourself, if with no one else, about how you feel about your situation. Sometimes you have to admit to yourself that, no matter how many scripts you’ve written or meetings you’ve taken, you are freaked the @#$! out about quitting your cushy law-firm job to pursue your dreams … or, you know, whatever your situation is.
4. Don’t believe other people’s hype.
After confessing to her hairstylist that she spent hours upon hours of her teenage life with a curling iron and a bottle of hair spray trying to achieve Whitney Houston’s hairdo and failing, her stylist said, “You know that’s a wig she had on, right?” Upon this revelation, Rhimes says, she felt both betrayed and relieved. Her point: Sometimes it’s not that you aren’t measuring up. You just don’t have the wig.
In Year of Yes, Rhimes describes a commitment she made to herself that anytime one of her three daughters asked her, “Wanna play?” she would drop everything and play with them for at least 15 minutes. “This Yes is about giving yourself the permission to shift the focus of what is a priority from what’s good for you over to what makes you feel good,” she writes.
For us doers, there is a tendency to keep your eyes focused so intently on the prize that you forget to play, but Rhimes writes, “The more I play, the happier I am at work.” In Year of Yes, Rhimes encourages all of us doers to make time for guilt-free play.
For that reminder, and everything else she’s done, I say, “Thank you, Shonda Rhimes.”
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.