Shonda Rhimes is the mega-successful writer and creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and The Catch. Rhimes has mastered the art of prioritizing her life and work decisions, but it was a long journey. But what the world didn’t know, until recently, is that Rhimes is also a mega-introvert, who has anxiety about public speaking and events. Rhimes was quickly learning that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything she wanted to do. In a TED Talk, “My year of saying yes to everything,” which was based on her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person, she talks about how she overcomes her fears to prioritize her life and work. In six steps, she lays out a plan for finding her joy again.
Start saying “yes” to new experiences
As Rhimes tells it in her book and her TED Talk, she got the reputation for being a wall of “no.” Her family and friends stopped inviting her to do things because they knew she wouldn’t go and her sister became frustrated at Rhimes’ decision to turn down major invitations. “These events. These parties, conferences, talk shows. Did you say yes to any of them?” her sister asked.
Rhimes said she realized the answer was “no.” She normally would turn down invitations for public speaking, because she was afraid of it. Saying “no” all the time meant she never confronted her fears. She started saying yes to everything, including giving commencement speeches in front of 10,000 people and going on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “And a crazy thing happened,” she says during her year of yes. “The very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear, made it not scary. My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, poof, gone. It’s amazing, the power of one word. ‘Yes’ changed my life. ‘Yes’ changed me.”
Say “yes” to “no”
It seems counterproductive to the “year of yes,” but saying no to the right things is another way of saying yes to better your life. You don’t want to do that poor-paying assignment, go to that mediocre play, or take on that time-sucking duty for your parent-teacher association? You’d rather play and find your hum? Say “yes” to being able to say “no” to protect yourself and your valuable, ever-diminishing time. Saying yes to no is a time management device for women, a way to set your priorities in life. As Rhimes learned, when dealing with situations that had a potential for conflict, she’d put off saying no, and it ate up so much of her brain, filled her with anxiety. Just the idea of saying no and giving an explanation was enough to make her anxious. Then her friend explained. “No is a complete sentence,” she writes. “You say no and you say good- bye. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.”
Accept your body
In her book, Rhimes decides to say yes to herself, her physical self. The problem is that she wasn’t happy with it. She writes: “I’ve battled my weight my entire life. It always seemed unfair. It was always a horrible struggle. And after a while, I decided that struggling was not worth it. So I stopped battling. I stopped starving myself. And I settled in at what seemed like a not too heavy but not skinny weight. Plus-size. Juicy. Curvy. Definitely cute. Great booty. I was healthy. I was working out. I wasn’t thinking too much about my body anyway. And then … I lost control of the wheel.”
Rhimes had slowly put on so much weight that she needed the seatbelt extender on the airplane. She was so ashamed of how far gone the weight gain was that she decided she wanted to do something about it. She also decided that she wasn’t going to beat herself up if she failed.
“I said yes to fatness,” she wrote. “And if I say yes to fatness, then I need to be fine if I’m rocking size 24s. I need to embrace who I am as I am. I need to buy my own seatbelt extender and pull it out of my purse, loud and proud, when I get on the plane. And dare the idiot next to me to make a comment. The problem with the fatness isn’t the fatness.”
But because she was unhappy in her own skin, that the eating led to not moving, not moving led to physical discomfort, she decided to change, by saying yes again. “I said yes to losing weight on March 8, 2014,” she writes.
She lost 100 pounds in a year and kept losing. She learned to love salads and working out by only doing things she likes doing — and doesn’t deny herself the cake. “You just have to accept that it will make your belly fat. And that is okay. But then do not complain about having a fat belly. Stop berating and shaming and hiding yourself. Become one with your fat belly and love your body for all its gifts.”
Find the hum, the real hum
In her Ted talk, Rhimes begins by explaining the feeling of deep satisfaction she experiences when everything is clicking at work as “the hum.”
“A hum begins in my brain, and it grows and it grows and that hum sounds like the open road, and I could drive it forever,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started making television that I started working, working and making and building and creating and collaborating, that I discovered this thing, this buzz, this rush, this hum. The hum is more than writing. The hum is action and activity. The hum is a drug. The hum is music. The hum is light and air. The hum is God’s whisper right in my ear. And when you have a hum like that, you can’t help but strive for greatness. That feeling, you can’t help but strive for greatness at any cost. That’s called the hum.”
The hum brings her contentment, energy and excitement. She keeps feeding the hum, thinking that this work hum is her. But over time, as her career grew bigger and bigger, the hum became so loud it drowned everything out, and then one day, it stopped completely. Her time management had become all about feeding the wrong hum. Says Rhimes, the hum was gone because the joy was gone. She needed to find the real hum, the one that gave her joy in her whole life, not just her work life. She set about finding that hum. To do that she needed to make some changes to set her priorities straight in her life.
Say “yes” to play — and no work
She’d stopped playing, she realized. That old canard about “all work, no play makes Jill a dull girl?” It was true for Rhimes, too. She worked so much that she didn’t even remember how to sit down and play with her young daughter. The phone was always nearby.
So, she started saying yes to play. In this case, playing with her kids. Even when she was running late for work. Especially when she was late for work. Then, something happened. She says in the TED Talk: “After a few months, one day the floodgates open and there’s a rush, and I find myself standing in my office filled with an unfamiliar melody, full on groove inside me, and around me, and it sends me spinning with ideas, and the humming road is open, and I can drive it and drive it, and I love working again. But now, I like that hum, but I don’t love that hum. I don’t need that hum. I am not that hum. That hum is not me, not anymore. I am bubbles and sticky fingers and dinners with friends. I am that hum. Life’s hum. Love’s hum. Work’s hum is still a piece of me, it is just no longer all of me, and I am so grateful.”
Take 15 minutes to feed the real hum
If it seems impossible to build in time for play in a life where you are working 50 hours a week, then Rhimes says, all you have to do is take 15 minutes of interrupted time.
“15 minutes is all you need. I can totally pull off 15 minutes of uninterrupted time on my worst day,” she says. “Uninterrupted is the key. No cell phone, no laundry, no anything. You have a busy life. You have to get dinner on the table. You have to force them to bathe. But you can do 15 minutes,” she says.
For her to find the “hum,” or her joy, it’s about playing with her kids. But she says, that doesn’t mean it’s the same thing for you. “It’s about joy. It’s about playing in general. Give yourself the 15 minutes. Find what makes you feel good. Just figure it out and play in that arena.”
Take 15 minutes to do something unrelated to work that gives you joy: meditating, reading, taking the dog for a walk, dancing. Find your joy. Say yes to your joy.
Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of the Stranger. She has been a staff writer at the Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs. You can find her at Patreon.