Shonda Rhimes has her own land. It’s named after her. Shondaland is home to three television shows that populate an entire night of a network’s broadcasting schedule and, this is not an overstatement, may actually be changing the world.
She has a Golden Globe; a Peabody Award; 12 NAACP Image trophies; lifetime achievement honors from the DGA, WGA, and GLAAD. She has chatted with the president of the United States and has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey several times.
Honestly, I think I’m a lot like her.
This is a revelation that did not come after the Golden Globe award that I accepted in my bathroom recently, mouthing my speech in the mirror while holding a shampoo bottle. It did not come after my conversation with Oprah Winfrey—sadly, as of now, those only happen when I’m talking on my cellphone, which has a giant photo of our Queen on its case.
It came after reading Rhimes’s first book, Year of Yes, which was released this week and adds yet another accomplishment to the résumé of this formidable, probably very tired woman. It’s a self-help book dressed in casual clothes, lessons for living a better life told through relatable personal essays from the woman who set out to, in the course of a year, make her own better.
We become kindred spirits within Year of Yes’s first few pages, in which she introduces herself and her intention for the book. “Being able to buy wine and steak and not think about the price is very important to me,” she writes. Shonda Rhimes is all of us; an Olivia Pope-sized glass of pinot is sitting to my right.
While there’s no denying that we clearly share the same life goals, it’s a line that illustrates the power of Shonda Rhimes, and especially of her writing.
She’s a Boss, both literally—running the ship of three titanic TV hits: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder—and figuratively—she’s a mother, a good friend, hilarious, hardworking, and knows the value of a good glass of wine. But when she’s writing, she speaks like she’s conversing directly with you, like that glass of pinot was poured from her bottle.
When she shares her hopes and fears and insecurities, and how she plans to fix them all, you mentally respond to her with all of yours, too. You’re in tipsy therapy with a woman who is not there. With a Boss who, despite all her success, has the same problems as you—you without your Golden Globe and friendship with Oprah. She’s been on a journey to solve some of those problems, and, in Year of Yes, she’s going to share how she did it with you.
Folks, she did it by saying—you guessed it—“yes.”
It began on Thanksgiving in 2013. She was bragging to her sister Delorse about all the invites she had been receiving for fancy Hollywood events, but also said that she wasn’t going to attend any of them, giving the litany of excuses we all have in arsenal: too busy, too tired, kids to raise, friends to see, partners to love.
Delorse’s response? A muttered “You never say yes to anything.” As Rhimes writes, “My sister said six words and changed everything.”
The change begins one night after meeting President Obama. (Naturally.)
She is told that she will be sitting in a box with the president and the first lady at the Kennedy Center Honors. They chat. They drink cocktails with Carlos Santana and Shirley MacLaine, watch Snoop Dogg toast Herbie Hancock, and see Garth Brooks sing Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.”
After that night, Rhimes awakes with a start, shocked by a come-to-Jesus realization that would define the rest of her year and ultimately change her life. “If they had asked me, I would have said no.” No to cocktails with the president.
On her birthday the following year, in January 2014, she vows that she is going to start saying yes. She had realized that, libations with world leaders and the joy that follows such nights aside, she was unhappy in her life. Unhappy in her success. Unhappy with herself. She was going to change that. She was going to say “yes.”
When she receives a phone call from Dartmouth to speak at graduation, she says yes. “Yes to everything scary,” she tells herself, and a public speaking engagement in front of thousands of graduates, their families, and friends? Terrifying.
She says yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel. She says yes to being interviewed by Oprah and to giving a speech at the Human Rights Campaign, among several other Hollywood events. The goal was to live life to her fullest, to get over her social anxieties. But she finds by just being present, by RSVP-ing “yes,” she begins to say yes to things spiritually as well.
In one chapter, Rhimes recounts when Elle editor-in-chief Robbie Meyers came up to chat with her at an event celebrating women in TV. Meyers had just finished complimenting all the honorees and remarked to Rhimes, “Did you notice not a single woman in this room can handle being told she is awesome? What is wrong with us?!”
She begins to say “yes” to accepting compliments. It leads to her owning her accomplishments. For standing up for herself with the swagger of a person of her worth. It leads to self-respect.
Another chapter recalls how her Year of Yes ultimately led to her 117-pound weight loss.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that food doesn’t work,” she writes, about her intimate and emotional relationship to food. “Anyone who tells you that food doesn’t work is either stupid or a liar or has never had food before… If food didn’t work, if it didn’t work its slutty, gluttonous, more-is-more magic, everyone in America would be Angelina Jolie thin.”
But on a plane one day, in a first-class seat, Rhimes found she couldn’t buckle her seat belt. So she said “yes” to not dying in a plane crash because she was too embarrassed to ask the stewardess for a seat belt extender. She said “yes” to living longer and being with her kids, because her weight gain would surely kill her. She said “yes” to eating moderately and still giving into cravings, and to exercising when she could but let’s not be crazy about it. Now she’s healthier than ever.
Much of the book also grapples with Rhimes’s struggle to balance work and her personal life, and then to manage the strange status she has as some role model for doing so just because she works in Hollywood and is successful.
There’s an uncanny familiarity to the journey Rhimes goes on. She learns not the perfect work-life balance, but her perfect version of that balance. She has epiphanies about her love life. She comes to terms with her success. She excises friends that are toxic in her life, and she becomes closer to her family.
Never do you feel preached at while reading Rhimes’s book. This woman of huge fame and fortune is speaking directly to you, and she’s doing it with familiarity, humor, and earned wisdom.
In a world of leaning in and vision boards and The Secret, Shonda Rhimes wants you to say “yes.” It sounds simple. But it’s not.
Yes is hard.
Rather, saying “yes” is hard.
It’s easy to be demanding. It’s easy to feel entitled. It’s easy to feel owed an opportunity or success without having to work for it. Our whole world is littered with those people. They are the worst. Literally, the worst. They’ll never be happy.
Saying “yes” to success means saying yes to the hard work, the frustration, and the discomfort you will experience on the way to achieving it. Saying “yes” doesn’t mean saying “I want.” It means saying “I will.” It’s active. And it’s hard.
“I thought saying YES would feel good,” Rhimes writes at one point. “I thought it would feel freeing. Like Julie Andrews spinning around on that big mountaintop at the beginning of The Sound of Music.” In the real world, though, Julie Andrews was freezing her ass off on that mountain and probably gave herself motion sickness and vertigo while twirling around on that hill.
“Yes” is brutal. It doesn’t feel good now. But it will make you good. It will make you great.
Actually, you may read Year of Yes and realize that maybe you’ve been saying it—saying “yes”—more than you knew already. That you’ve been on your way to changing your life into the one you want, the one you need. In that way, Year of Yes is an awakening as much as it is a reckoning. Recognize the power of what you’ve been doing. Do more of it.
I said “yes” to this assignment.
I have said “yes” to getting myself in really good shape—and lately I have said “yes” to lots of cocktails parties and glasses of wine and that really good pad thai from the delivery place down the corner. That latter “yes” left me unable to button my suit jacket at the wedding I attended last weekend, but has made these past few months of indulgence full of blissful gluttony. (Though next week I will say “yes” to running again, I swear.)
I said “yes” to officiating said wedding, of two very close friends of mine, even though I was self-conscious about my ill-fitting suit and felt woefully unqualified to be such an integral part of a major event of another human’s life; thinking about what I would say to this couple as they stood at the altar, about love and commitment and futures, and then the act of performing those words, ended up being one of the most moving and profound experiences of my life.
I even said “yes” to love, and to all work on myself it took to get to the point where I could say “yes.”
I’m not done saying “yes.” And I’m overwhelmed by the realization that I can’t ask people to say it for me, or to do the work it will take to get what I want. I’m worried that it will take changing my behavior—hell, first it will take acknowledging certain parts of my behavior.
Maybe I drink too much wine, for example. But after saying “yes” for a while, at least I’m no longer drinking those gross bottles from the bottom shelf. Maybe soon, like Shonda, I won’t have to think about the price at all. Next year? Yes.