From the first few pages into a Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, I already knew I was going to write this blog post. And by the middle of the book, there was already enough material and lessons. But I had to read the book to the end to be sure I wasn’t missing out on anything. And therein lay a little challenge as the book seemed to drag a bit. Someone mentioned it to me as one she couldn’t put down and I begged to disagree. I could put it down. In fact, I did put it down.
Nonetheless, it’s a great book. And if you’ve ever watched Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder – American TV series that dominate and partcularly showcased black people in lead roles, then you probably know Shonda Rhimes. But as amazing as Shonda was on paper (pun unintended), her life was apparently far from glamour. She was miserable. She didn’t socialise, said no to all the events, interviews, parties etc and preferred to stay on her own – engrossed in work. Then one day her elder sister says to her “you never say yes to anything”. Those six words apparently changed Shonda’s life and she took up the challenge of a Year of Yes — to say Yes to everything – the start of her amazing journey and transformation.
For me, this book is particularly wonderful because it pauses us to reflect and wonder if we’re really saying yes to life!
It’s one thing to agree to do something, but it’s another to actually do it. Shonda Rhimes’ year of yes, willingness to say yes didn’t quite start out as she would have expected. Her first invitation post-decision was a request to be on Jimmy Kimmel Live – the late-night talk show. It wasn’t the first time she had been invited but she had always turned it down.
And now? Sure she could very much rescind her decision. After all, she considered herself too socially awkward to be on live TV. The middle ground was a compromise – a yes to the show as long as it was pre-recorded. Turns out that worked fantastically well – watch it here!
This happens all the way in chapter six of the book. And perhaps because I’m a relatively new mum attempting to figure out how to balance a career/business and motherhood and other ventures, I could relate with this. I mean, like Shonda I often get asked the big questions. These questions according to her, she gets asked in almost every interview!
– “How do you manage work and home?”
– “What tips do you have for working moms?”
– “ What is your secret to finding balance in a busy world?”
You probably recognise these questions don’t you? You may have looked at someone and thought – heck how are they finding balance?
And so she’d reel off some answers like
– “I manage with a lot of organisation and a label maker”
– “ I do laundry late at night”
– “I’ve started meditating on a regular basis”
Did you just roll your eyes? I know right!
But all she wanted to say was the truth. But then she’d read so many books about working mums and no one ever said it. So she couldn’t.
She gives an illustration about spending hours and hours trying to copy Whitney Houston’s hairstyle. But it never worked out. And then someone told her the truth – it was a wig!
Her truth in achieving balance was similar. It was all thanks to her nanny Jenny McCarthy.
As powerful women were shamed into not wanting to say that they had help – nannies, or housekeepers, she thought that hiring a nanny to look after her baby was irresponsible. Until she felt the full weight of the experience – and realised we must all say yes to help. Because no one can do it all. And while you’re at it, tell other mums you have help; so they don’t feel any less of themselves.
In a Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, this chapter is actually titled, “Yes to all Play and no Work”. And you can see why.
As she said yes says to more things, interviews, dinners and social events – her life got busier. Which meant less time for her kids. She was doing great everywhere else but her home as she started to feel irrelevant. She’d enter the room to find her daughters playing and they’d barely acknowledge her. This has happened because every time her daughter asked if she wanted to play, she didn’t have the time. Then she knew it was time to re-evaluate. And so she made it a rule. Her answer to “wanna play?” was always yes.
Are you saying yes to play enough?
On page 132, Shonda acknowledges that she is fat. Not chubby cute or plus sized, but fat – obese even. And she becomes uncomfortable in her own skin. Perhaps the icing on the cake was when her seat belt broke on the air-plane even though she sat in the first class cabin! She finally decided to say yes to her health. Slowly, she began to love what she saw in the mirror as she said yes to salad over fried chicken and put in a lot more exercise.
Isn’t this something most of us should all say yes to right?
After 25 years of graduating from her alma mater, Dartmouth College, Shonda is invited to give the commencement speech, which well, she had to say yes to! After the usual worry and insecurities, the next big concern is what to say. Her first speech which she considered “fluff” is full of the expected things to say: “follow your dreams, change the world, embrace failure, dream big”
After much pondering, she tears this up and decides to speak to these eager graduates sharing her whole truth – on life and challenges after graduation, on not only dreaming but doing the work, on how it’s really hard out there and how no one absolutely no one balances it perfectly. Watch/Listen/Read the full speech – here.
In this social media frenzy and packaging world, are you speaking your truth?
Why do so many women find it difficult to genuinely accept compliments? At a powerful event for women and as their accomplishments were read, Shonda noticed that each woman either waved it off, ducked her head or gave an embarrassed laugh. Shondas’ case was no different as she went with the head ducking.
Later, someone else mentioned to Shonda how not a single woman in the room could handle being told she was awesome! Then she decides to own up to her accomplishments. Because she’s good. And to simply say thank you to compliments!
Similarly, she decides to stop whittling down how badass she was by using “just”. Oh I’m just a writer. Or to be thankful she was fat — because fat and successful was less intimidating. Instead, like the average man, to take the compliment and run — without apologising for being powerful or downplaying their accomplishments.
In both chapters 12 and 13, Shonda talks about the need for a tribe and the need to feel seen. Life honestly shouldn’t be done alone and your tribe of people should be out there cheering you on!
Also it’s important to differentiate such people from those you believe are your people simply because you’ve known them for years or because you would do anything for them! She narrates how she eventually saw through a toxic friendship and had to cut that off. This friend was never genuinely her person, not happy for her and she, Shonda had perhaps made up all of the excellent qualities in her head. In her words, “I spent years having a totally fulfilling, completely awesome friendship with a person who is only a stand in for a figment of my imagination”
Thankfully, she realises that her true friends, her tribe need not be in her imagination. She’s surrounded by them. Have you found your tribe? Do you need to say no to toxic friendships and yes to the right people?
No is such a strong powerful word. A complete sentence on its own. Yet it’s one many people find hard to use. In a Year of Yes, Shonda recalls casting for one her favourite characters for Grey’s Anatomy – Cristina Yang.
Before she found Sandra Oh, everyone else agreed that a certain other person was the perfect fit for the role. But she knew in her gut that it wasn’t — only that she wasn’t sure how on earth to make that known without reeling off a bunch of reasons.
Finally, she finds her voice to simply say No. And that, according to her, remains her favourite no ever! Judging by how much everyone loves Cristina – she was probably right on that!
But how many times do we get sucked up into doing things we don’t want to – loaning money, attending an event, and more life changing decisions like forced to pick a course or study or get married – because we refuse to say No. Saying no wasn’t the end in itself. It helped Shonda realise how important it was to have difficult conversations as well – and how much easier life can be when you do have them!
Shonda loves weddings, adores them even — yet does not want to be married! A paradox you think? It doesn’t help that her parents are the marriage jackpot – soulmates, made for each other, fit like a hand in glove even after fifty plus years!
But that’s just not for her, and finally she accepts it. She realises that she didn’t want the traditional fairy tale. She didn’t want to supposedly have it all — seeing as being married seemed the missing piece of the puzzle. For her, perhaps nothing else could come close to her devotion to writing.
Find your happiness and be your own kind of beautiful!
I’ve probably now given a pretty generous summary of this fascinating book – A Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. Although this book was released in 2016, it’s one that is evergreen. At the start of a new year, it’s particularly a great one to read and also excellent for some reflection.
Have you read it yet? What did you think – could you put it down or not? Which of the above do you need to say yes to in 2020? I would love to hear your thoughts!