I’m not ashamed to admit that, prior to reading Year Of Yes, all of my Shonda Rhimes knowledge was Grey’s Anatomy-related. In fact, prior to Year Of Yes, Rhimes herself really preferred it that way. All her life, she had been a self-confessed introvert; she once hired a publicist for the express purpose of keeping her from actually having to do any publicity for her ground-breaking television.
Really, Rhimes said “no” to everything as a way of hiding from things that terrified her (can’t we all relate, just a little bit?). As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted her when she said she was “too busy”. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid.
Then, while cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 2013, her sister said something to her, something Rhimes calls the “six startling words”: you never say yes to anything.
Well, you can’t lay down a gauntlet like that in front of a powerhouse like Rhimes. She embraced the challenge and decided to go against all her better instincts, to spend the year saying YES. She’s now written this book, Year Of Yes, about her experience. It’s not a memoir, exactly – even though it’s told through the frame of Rhimes’ experiment. It’s not self-help, either – even though Rhimes offers a lot of advice and wisdom gleaned from what she’s done. I’d say Year Of Yes is a non-fiction book about the transformative power of being open to new things and overcoming ingrained anxiety, as exemplified by one extraordinary woman.
I knew from the prologue alone that Rhimes and I would be great friends (she and Gabrielle Union and I should really get together sometime). She likes wine (in a let’s-drink-about-it way, not a snobby way), and her searing self-deprecation (whilst never losing sight of, nor apologising for, her many accomplishments) is totally endearing. What’s more, it’s abundantly clear throughout Year Of Yes that she poured a lot of herself into her most-beloved Grey’s Anatomy character, Christina Yang. Trust me, if you’ve ever identified as a Yang, Year Of Yes is a book you’ll want to read.
That’s not why I picked it up, though – just a happy coincidence. Mostly I was curious about Year Of Yes as a fascinating counterpoint to all of the calls for busy women to say “no” more often. Rhimes is busier than most of us (combined). Surely, I thought, saying “yes” – to everything – would simply lead to her feeling over-committed and exhausted.
She addresses the over-commitment question directly in chapter seven (“Yes to All Play and No Work”), when she realises that saying “yes” also means saying yes to silly things, fun thinsg, and sometimes saying yes to those things means saying a grateful “no” to others. This is not the year of indiscriminate yes; it’s the year of yes to things that make us feel alive. There are some things (and some people, ahem!) that it is absolutely right to say-yes-to-saying-no-to.
When Rhimes starts saying yes, she finds that her fear won’t actually kill her. Most of the time, facing the fear she feels really pays off. She does interviews, speeches, cameo appearances, all kinds of awesome stuff that brings her a lot of joy – all of which she would have said “no” to, had her sister not made a crack at her at a family get-together. Year Of Yes turns out to be Rhimes’ own self-guided form of exposure therapy. The more she says yes, and follows through, the easier (and better) it gets.
I got nervous when she started to talk about health and her weight – but I needn’t have worried. Though some of her self-talk and concerns might be a bit triggering for readers particularly sensitive to those issues, I thought Rhime’s message was ultimately a positive and empowering one. She is not here to advocate for losing weight in order to feel beautiful. Rather, she discovered that once she felt beautiful and said “yes” to doing things that made her feel good, losing weight was a side effect of that. Say “yes” to loving your body and commit to doing the best you can for it, and the rest will fall where it may. Sometimes that means saying “yes” to a hike, sometimes it means saying “yes” to extra cheese.
I hesitate to share this, for fear of sounding like a gross cliche, but… what the heck. Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got.
Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Hell yes, Shonda!
My favourite Amazon reviews of Year Of Yes:
- “I had such high hopes for this book! And I tried. I tried soooo hard to make it through. But it is was so incredibly boring and self-centered and seemingly without an ability to connect to others hardships and experiences of life. If you DO find yourself as a very wealthy, very successful TV writer and producer with an amazing life who just can’t seem to say yes to fancy events with other wealthy, successful people, then PLEASE buy this book. It will no doubt help you on your journey.” – Jessica Michele
- “The book came with what very much appears to be snot on the cover, complete with multiple pieces of nose or beard hair in it. Delivered during the peak of COVID. Not feeling great about this.” – Amsat
- “I’m in a book club and this was our book… not sure if I’m going to stay with the book club.” – Jeff & Erin