If anyone should write a book on how to live life, it is Shonda Rhimes. The award-winning, highly successful TV producer has created an empire of hit TV shows in a field that is notoriously closed to women, not to mention women of color. As creator, executive producer and writer of three hit TV shows—Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal—Rhimes stands on her own as the only black woman at her level in Hollywood.
But the thing about successful women like Rhimes is that they share their success by mentoring others. Rhimes has invited Ava DuVernay (and now Denzel Washington) to direct an episode of Scandal. She has executive-produced How to Get Away With Murder, created by another protégé of hers, Peter Nowalk, and starring the peerless Viola Davis. Rhimes has, quite simply, changed the face of television by making space on-screen for people who look the way the world looks. This “normalizing,” she has said, is much overdue. Without Rhimes, it is safe to say, there would be no Empire, Black-ish or even Fresh Off the Boat.
And now Rhimes has given us her first book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, a memoir of the year she decided to say yes to every opportunity that came her way. Rhimes makes success look so easy, we often forget that she is not a superwoman but a very real human being just as beset by fear and self-doubt as we all are.
This was the genesis of the Year of Yes: One Thanksgiving morning over a mountain of yet-to-be-cooked food, as Rhimes detailed the never-ending flood of invitations and requests pouring into her office, Rhimes’ oldest sister, Delorse, told Rhimes simply, “You never say yes to anything.” Rhimes sputtered—she was a single mother of three children, two of whom were younger than 2; she ran two TV shows; and 600 employees depended on her. Her plate was full. She could not take on anything else.
But Delorse’s words, as the words of our older and wiser siblings tend to do, festered inside Rhimes’ mind until she realized that she does have a paralyzing fear of saying yes to things—and this had made her absolutely miserable. So Rhimes resolved to say yes. To everything. For a whole year.
What follows is a hilariously honest look at Rhimes’ journey of overcoming her fears and saying yes—whether it be giving a speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth University, or appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live. It is difficult to imagine someone as successful as Rhimes suffering from the same fears that hound the rest of us. But self-described as “awkward, introverted and visibly uncomfortable when meeting new people,” Rhimes carefully details the crippling fear created by her social anxiety. Saying yes to these onstage requests is not easy for her. But being extremely competitive and determined, Rhimes will not fail the “say yes” challenge she has presented to herself.
Year of Yes moves back and forth in time—from Rhimes’ childhood spent making up stories with food cans in the kitchen pantry to her present-day journey of saying yes, and the many years in between building the ShondaLand universe that crowned her the queen of TV. In the witty, intelligent voice we have come to expect from her highly successful television shows, Rhimes details how her love of “making stuff up” carried her from a tiny shared bedroom in “the suburbs of Chicago to an Ivy League dorm room in the hills of New Hampshire” and, finally, “all the way to Hollywood.”
Here, Rhimes is the sister-friend and wise auntie you wish you knew way back in the day so that you could follow her advice before you made so many regretful mistakes. But there is always hope, Rhimes avers. Indeed, hope—along with belief in the power of hard work—imbues every page of Year of Yes. “I said yes to something that terrified me,” she writes about conquering her fear of appearing on Kimmel’s talk show. “And then I did it. And I didn’t die.” Here is encouragement for all of us to overcome our fears and step into our own power and success.
Of her Golden Globe-winning show Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes writes: “Having a show I created be my first real TV job meant that I knew nothing about working in TV when I began running my own show.” There was just one thing that had to be done: Every eight days, a new script needed to be completed; otherwise you would “go from being a TV writer to being a failed TV writer.” This is where Rhimes learned to write fast, juggling a diverse array of character-driven stories replete with imagination and nail-biting suspense.
But according to Rhimes, this was nothing more than common sense: “I made the world of the show look the way the world looks. I filled it with people of all hues, genders, backgrounds and sexual orientations. And then I did the most obvious thing possible: I wrote all of them as if they were … people. … This, I was told over and over, was trailblazing and brave.”
Like Rhimes’ television shows, Year of Yes is highly entertaining—a balance of richly drawn characters, spell-binding scenes and poignant observations about life. Covering not just Rhimes’ work in film and television but also her experiences with motherhood, family, relationships and health, Rhimes’ boundless, energetic prose pulls the reader through this fast-paced book, eager for more. In Year of Yes, like everything else she does, Rhimes makes success look easy. She inspires us to stop looking for ways to say no, and start looking for ways to overcome our own fears and say yes.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.