This successful woman used to say ‘no.’ Now, she says ‘yes’ and this is the best thing that’s happened

If you have ears, you’ve heard of Shonda Rhimes. Creator of the groundbreaking hit TV show Scandal, the eyeball-gripping Grey’s Anatomy and, most recently, the wildly popular How to Get Away with Murder. As the head of her own super-successful production company, ShondaLand, this 45-year-old producer creates worlds and has claimed Thursday night on ABC as her own. Yet, with her new book, Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand In the Sun, and Be your Own Person, we learn that the world she created for herself was, in fact, full of social limitations.Shonda copy

At a speech the mom of three gave at a Human Rights Campaign gala, Shonda tells her story of not fitting in. She says she grew up as one of the only black girls in school, and was chubby, bespectacled, shy, different. A geek. The woman who created a multi-million dollar empire is whip-smart, but also painfully shy. Her speech resonated with so many who felt they too didn’t belong. Listen here.

After years of devoting her life to creating compelling characters while juggling raising three daughters, Shonda had an epiphany. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2013. She was rattling off a list of high-profile invites she had received to events and parties to her sister. Her sister asked if she was going to attend any, to which Shonda replied with an emphatic “no!” That’s when her sister said something that stuck with her, “you say no to everything.”

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Not long afterwards, Shonda had to (how many times do we say we “HAD TO” attend an event, or party, even if it’s fun?) attend the Kennedy Center Honors, because she had just been appointed to the board of trustees by President Obama.  She was told she’d be sitting with the Obamas! Shonda was actually not looking forward to it; she was nervous and worried that she wouldn’t have enough to say. And it turns out, it was one of those unforgettable evenings you have – if you’re lucky  – just a few times in your life.

Shonda reflected later that night and realized if someone had asked her if she wanted to attend and sit with the Obamas, she would have certainly said no – it was then that she decided to start saying yes. To everything. For one year. Every time one of her three children asked her to play – whether she was in an evening dress or a suit headed to a meeting, she said yes, She said yes when asked to address the graduating class at her alma mater, Dartmouth, even though she had a fear of public speaking. She said yes to taking back her health and lost 100 pounds in the process. She said yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel. All of this instead of saying no so she could continue to bask in her comfort zone of focusing on work. Shonda says saying yes transformed her life.

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This reminds me of the familiar question, “what would you do if you thought you couldn’t fail?” Shonda’s pact with herself inspires me. My favorite quote for the last few years has been: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. That’s what prompted me to learn to swim for the first time in my life. It pushed me to run a half-marathon, even though I never did before. And it emboldened me to open up and give a speech revealing a secret in my life that I thought would inspire other people. And every one of those accomplishments proved to be transformative. And, come to think of it, I experienced a flood of emotions and felt like I was really living during each of those accomplishments. I’ve learned life isn’t about being comfortable and staying within your space, it’s about breaking free,  feeling new feelings and seeing new things. It’s about changing. Not about staying the same, stagnant, safe.

Mid-year resolution: I’m going to say yes a lot more. Just ask me.


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