Book Review: ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes

So, I just finished reading Year of Yes by the queen Shonda Rhimes and I have so much to say about it. This is the kind of book that I want to buy one hundred copies of and give to friends, family (I already gave one to my mom), and strangers on the street, to be honest. Maybe it’s because I can relate so keenly to the revelations that Shonda has had as she embarked upon this project, maybe it’s our shared introverted nature, or maybe it’s just because I’m a huge sucker for a story of true transformation – one in which the protagonist goes through their hero’s journey and by the end is completely changed, with new eyes and a fresh perspective on themselves and the world around them. I think I’m always falling for these storylines (whether they be in films or books alike – Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love comes to mind) because it gives me, too, hope that I can change and grow and evolve in the ways I most need to if only I have the courage to look fear in the face, and, like the Pink song says, say “I just don’t care” as I keep pushing forward.

I could honestly type about this topic all day long, but I’ll digress for now and instead focus on the main takeaways from this book. If no one reads this post, I’ll still consider it an accomplishment because I will most definitely be turning back and re-reading it in the future.

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So, without further ado, here we go…

First things first, Shonda opens the book by explaining that the moment that set her off on the journey of saying ‘yes’ to everything that scared her for one whole year was when her older sister, Delorse said to her, “you never say yes to anything.” I can totally relate to this, mainly because, a lot of the time I prefer staying in over going out, and yet, I know in my heart that at least 50% of the time (probably much more, more like 90% of the time), the moments in which I have felt myself truly grow is when I push myself outside of my comfort zone (i.e. anywhere that doesn’t involve books, tea, and an 8tracks playlist playing in the background).  As an introvert, it can be difficult to ‘put yourself out there’ as cheesy as that sounds, and one trick I’ve picked up over the years is to ask myself “what am I so afraid of?” and “what’s the worst case scenario here if I push myself to do this thing that for some reason scares me to death?” Most of the time, it’s completely irrational – and Shonda attests to this both during her Dartmouth Commencement Speech (her first  big ‘yes’) and in the book. (Sidebar: I highly recommend you listening to this speech if you haven’t already!)

One huge fear that Shonda writes after accepting the invitation to speak at Dartmouth has to do with public speaking. I’ve definitely written about this before in past blog posts, but I used to feel fear viscerally course through my body whenever a teacher even mentioned the words ‘oral presentation,’ even if the project would be occurring months later. This lasted from grades 6 through about 10, and then, one day, they just stopped – I became desensitized and it became easier and more natural. I took an Entertainment Business class when I was a sophomore at NYU and our professor spoke about his own past fear of public speaking and how he would strategically blend into the wallpaper at company meetings for years, until one day he was forced to make a presentation to his colleagues. He explained that desensitization was what cured him of this fear, and I can attest to the same exact thing happening to me. He also explained that he became a huge ham after going through this, and I feel similarly at times as well. Once you do something a certain amount of times and actually live to tell the tale, you gain confidence that takes you into the next round, and it just keeps building on itself. The trick is to keep doing it – to do it scared and trust that one day, when you’re doing whatever it is that terrifies you, the white heat that you feel  will eventually be replaced by clarity and confidence, and if its not replaced by those two things it will just be a lower level of anxiety and nervousness, but it will keep getting more and more manageable. I never thought I would be feeling this way about something that used to actually disrupt my sleep days beforehand, and I would not be writing it if it weren’t true: the more time you spend with fear the smaller its magnitude will become. This quote sums it up pretty well – it’s Shonda talking about the deep breath that she takes before beginning the speech:

“If you watch the video, you can see me exhale. You can see the very last instant, the very last moment, the very last breath of my fear. From that exhale forth, I am someone new. Someone comfortable. Someone unafraid. My body relaxes. I smile. I settle into my soul. And for the first time in my life, I stand on a stage and raise my voice to the public with full confidence and not an inch of panic. For the first time in my life, I speak to an audience as myself and I feel joy.”

I also wanted to include one more side note before getting into some highlights of what I learned from Year of Yes. There is a difference between saying ‘yes’ to everything that scares you and saying ‘yes’ to everything, period. I think it’s extremely important to say yes to the things that scare you because these experiences are often transformative, but I equally believe in the power of knowing oneself and approaching things in a balanced way. In other words, if you know that you need time to yourself to recharge from life every now and again, try not to fall into the FOMO (fear of missing out) trap by saying ‘yes’ to any and all opportunities. There’s a big difference between doing something scared because, deep down, you know that it will lead you to that next plateau, and doing something just because you’re afraid someone will be mad at you if you don’t. What I mean is this, and Shonda gets into it too: it’s just as important to learn how to say ‘yes’ as it is to say ‘no.’

Quick & Dirty* Notes of What I Learned:

  • Say ‘yes’ to the things that scare you. The things that you’re terrified of happening to you will most likely never happen. If they do, though, you will survive. Try to be evaluative in what exactly is scaring you in order to move closer toward it and say ‘yes’ to it. Shonda states, “The point of this whole Year of Yes project is to say yes to things that scare me, that challenge me. So in order to YES a problem, I have to find whatever it is inside that the problem that challenges me or scares me or makes me just freak out – and then I have to say yes to that thing.” A few more quotes that help in this arena: “Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards” – Tina Fey, and “80% of success is showing up” – Woody Allen
  • Leave work at work and say ‘yes’ to play. At the bottom of Shonda’s e-mail, the signature states, “Please note: I will not engage in work emails after 7pm or on weekends. IF I AM YOUR BOSS MAY I SUGGEST: PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE.” I love this concept, and even though I am not ruling Thursday nights on ABC and raising 3 daughters like Shonda is, I can definitely relate to this concept. We are always on our phones, always connected, and though I am not in a position where I am being relied on in a workplace or by a family of my own yet, I can see how hard it can be even at a young age to disconnect. Two Instagram posts that I saw this past week that were inspiring in this arena: 1) Arianna Huffington’s post (inspired by Kendall Jenner) to stack everyone’s phones up at the dinner table and leave them be. 2) Jedidiah Jenkins’ post about not using his phone or the internet between the hours of 9am and 12:30pm every week day. He’s currently writing a book, so this works for him vocationally at this point but obviously can’t be followed by everyone. But I love the concept even applied to weekends to get a little bit of time in sans technology for those of us who use the internet every day at work. As for ‘play,’ play can be anything – some activities that Shonda suggests (sidenote: I can’t bring myself to write ‘Rhimes’ or ‘Shonda Rhimes’ and I know that ‘Shonda’ makes it sound like we’re close friends, but I can’t help it) – getting a manicure or pedicure, browsing in an actual bookstore, and taking a long bath with Aretha Franklin playing. I love all of these and we all deserve to indulge in self-care in the ways that most feed our souls.
  • Say ‘yes’ to health. In the process of writing and publishing this book, Shonda lost over 100 pounds, and this only occurred after she realized that, “Nothing works until you are really ready for it to work.” She went to her physician for a complete physical, started doing Pilates, drank 64 oz. of water daily, and ate what she craved when she craved it. I think it’s important to note that creating health looks different for every person because every body is different, but this is what worked for her.
  • Learn how to take a compliment. Not to get all feminist on you, but this is especially difficult for women! We are not conditioned to accept compliments – we are conditioned to either deflect them, tell the person giving the compliment that they are wrong, or a number of other things, none of which involves accepting the compliment as the flattery that it is and saying ‘thank you.’ Not, ‘thank you but _______.’ No justifications. No apologies. Just, ‘thank you.’ A lot of this revolves around owning who we are, owning our strengths, and not feeling guilty for being confident and self-aware in what our strengths are. It’s not about being a delusional narcissist, it’s about genuinely being into yourself, thinking you’re special, and being in love with yourself.  Shonda states, “Did I just say that I’m actually worried that people will think that I am into myself. I am worried that people will think that maybe I think I am special? That I am in love with myself? Wait. Isn’t that the GOAL? Don’t people pay money to licensed therapists to get into themselves, to fall in love with themselves, to think they are special?” I just love everything about this and I’ll leave it at that. When people compliment you, say ‘thank you’ and NOTHING ELSE. This was also too good to not post (I laughed out loud when I read it): “Say it. Just say thank you. Then smile. And don’t say anything else. Don’t offer any words of apology or remorse for having the audacity to wear a dress someone could like. Just stand there, confident and bold. Like you, too, think this color is great on you.” Appreciate the compliments and honor the person who gave them to you by genuinely thanking them and agreeing with them. You’re allowed. Own your power and own your gifts, don’t apologize for them and don’t make yourself smaller to make others feel less threatened by you.
  • ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Learn how to say ‘no’ to people and follow your gut feeling, and care less if they will get angry with you, or not want to be friends with you anymore as a result. Have the courage to have those tough conversations with people when they do something that violates a boundary for you, or offends you. One of my favorite takeaways that I honestly can’t wait to use is this: when someone says something off-the-cuff or offensive or passive-aggressive to you, instead of pretending you didn’t hear it, calmly say to them, “what did you mean by that?” People will flip out. I kind of can’t wait to do this because I NEVER do this. I hate confrontation and the thought of being that direct with someone is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating – and it is 100% needed in life. Life is actually calmer, she states, when we decide to have the courage to have difficult conversations because then we can better see who our true friends are and won’t be spending time being angry with people and telling everyone but them how they make us feel. Life is calmer because grudges are let go of and the true colors of others can be seen, and I believe that this simple sentence has tremendous power, as does saying the word ‘no’ when something simply doesn’t work for us instead of forcing ourselves to do what goes against our grain just to appease others and avoid conflict. A closing quote on this topic: “You have to know when to say, ‘I’m done.’ You have to know when to say, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ ‘You aren’t worth it.’ The more I said what I thought, the more willing I was to dive into difficult conversations, the more I was willing to say yes to me, the less I was willing to allow people in my life who left me emptier and unhappier and more insecure than before I saw them.”
  • Embrace who you are and live life according to your own rules. This can be hard when our culture imposes so many ideals onto us, but it is essential to find our own personal formula for happiness, because the path to that life looks different to each person. Simply put, “Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be.” I’m sorry but does a quote get any better than that!? I underlined 3/4 of this book and I have zero shame about that. There are neon post-it notes everywhere. You think I’m joking but I’m not.

*I learned today that I am not capable of writing “quick & dirty notes” on anything. I am verbose in my writing and in my speaking and that’s that. I love words, I love stringing them together, and this book helped me to realize and own the fact that I’m good at it. There, I said it. Even if no one reads my words, I know and embrace the fact that writing and I are MFEO, as Shonda states (Made For Each Other).

This book meant so much to me. This book is one of the reasons why I love reading so much – because it opened my eyes a little a lot wider. Its message resounded deep within me because the story she was telling was my story, and a lot of our stories. It was about looking fear in the face instead of running in circles trying to escape it. It was about becoming more rooted, more confident, more daring. It was about knowing that you will not only survive, but thrive, when you stop avoiding everything that makes your heart beat a little bit faster. It was about gaining confidence through challenging yourself, but also owning your natural talents and really loving yourself. This was Shonda Rhimes’ hero’s journey, and I am so grateful to have had the privilege to absorb the profound lessons that she learned along the way.

In closing,

“I am only just beginning to understand that the very act of saying yes is not just life-changing, it is life saving. I now see two paths – a ragged rocky one that goes up to the top of the mountain and a nice easy one that heads down under it. I can fight to make the rocky climb, get a few bruises, risk getting hurt. And I can stand on the mountaintop and breathe the air in the warm sun, taking in the whole world before me. Or I can take the easy route underground. There is no sun down there. No air. But it’s warm. It’s safe. […] Saying yes…saying yes is courage. Saying yes is the sun. Saying yes is life.”

Thanks for reading 🙂

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