TV show creator (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) Shonda Rhimes gave an inspirational TED talk about saying yes – she forced herself to say “Yes” for a year – to more play and doing more things to make herself happy.
This talk was filmed in February 2016. You can watch or read the transcript below!
So a while ago, I tried an experiment. For one year, I would say yes to all the things that scared me. Anything that made me nervous, took me out of my comfort zone, I forced myself to say yes to. Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes. Did I want to be on live TV? No, but yes. Did I want to try acting? No, no, no, but yes, yes, yes.
And a crazy thing happened: the very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear, made it not scary. My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, poof, gone. It’s amazing, the power of one word. “Yes” changed my life. “Yes” changed me. But there was one particular yes that affected my life in the most profound way, in a way I never imagined, and it started with a question from my toddler.
I have these three amazing daughters, Harper, Beckett and Emerson, and Emerson is a toddler who inexplicably refers to everyone as “honey.” as though she’s a Southern waitress.
“Honey, I’m gonna need some milk for my sippy cup.”
The Southern waitress asked me to play with her one evening when I was on my way somewhere, and I said, “Yes.” And that yes was the beginning of a new way of life for my family. I made a vow that from now on, every time one of my children asks me to play, no matter what I’m doing or where I’m going, I say yes, every single time. Almost. I’m not perfect at it, but I try hard to practice it. And it’s had a magical effect on me, on my children, on our family. But it’s also had a stunning side effect, and it wasn’t until recently that I fully understood it, that I understood that saying yes to playing with my children likely saved my career.
See, I have what most people would call a dream job. I’m a writer. I imagine. I make stuff up for a living. Dream job. No. I’m a titan. Dream job. I create television. I executive produce television. I make television, a great deal of television. In one way or another, this TV season, I’m responsible for bringing about 70 hours of programming to the world. Four television programs, 70 hours of TV —
Three shows in production at a time, sometimes four. Each show creates hundreds of jobs that didn’t exist before. The budget for one episode of network television can be anywhere from three to six million dollars. Let’s just say five. A new episode made every nine days times four shows, so every nine days that’s 20 million dollars worth of television, four television programs, 70 hours of TV, three shows in production at a time, sometimes four, 16 episodes going on at all times: 24 episodes of “Grey’s,” 21 episodes of “Scandal,” 15 episodes of “How To Get Away With Murder,” 10 episodes of “The Catch,” that’s 70 hours of TV, that’s 350 million dollars for a season. In America, my television shows are back to back to back on Thursday night. Around the world, my shows air in 256 territories in 67 languages for an audience of 30 million people. My brain is global, and 45 hours of that 70 hours of TV are shows I personally created and not just produced, so on top of everything else, I need to find time, real quiet, creative time, to gather my fans around the campfire and tell my stories. Four television programs, 70 hours of TV, three shows in production at a time, sometimes four, 350 million dollars, campfires burning all over the world. You know who else is doing that? Nobody, so like I said, I’m a titan. Dream job.
Now, I don’t tell you this to impress you. I tell you this because I know what you think of when you hear the word “writer.” I tell you this so that all of you out there who work so hard, whether you run a company or a country or a classroom or a store or a home, take me seriously when I talk about working, so you’ll get that I don’t peck at a computer and imagine all day, so you’ll hear me when I say that I understand that a dream job is not about dreaming. It’s all job, all work, all reality, all blood, all sweat, no tears. I work a lot, very hard, and I love it.
When I’m hard at work, when I’m deep in it, there is no other feeling. For me, my work is at all times building a nation out of thin air. It is manning the troops. It is painting a canvas. It is hitting every high note. It is running a marathon. It is being Beyoncé. And it is all of those things at the same time. I love working. It is creative and mechanical and exhausting and exhilarating and hilarious and disturbing and clinical and maternal and cruel and judicious, and what makes it all so good is the hum. There is some kind of shift inside me when the work gets good. A hum begins in my brain, and it grows and it grows and that hum sounds like the open road, and I could drive it forever. And a lot of people, when I try to explain the hum, they assume that I’m talking about the writing, that my writing brings me joy. And don’t get me wrong, it does. But the hum — it wasn’t until I started making television that I started working, working and making and building and creating and collaborating, that I discovered this thing, this buzz, this rush, this hum. The hum is more than writing. The hum is action and activity. The hum is a drug. The hum is music. The hum is light and air. The hum is God’s whisper right in my ear. And when you have a hum like that, you can’t help but strive for greatness. That feeling, you can’t help but strive for greatness at any cost. That’s called the hum. Or, maybe it’s called being a workaholic.
Maybe it’s called genius. Maybe it’s called ego. Maybe it’s just fear of failure. I don’t know. I just know that I’m not built for failure, and I just know that I love the hum. I just know that I want to tell you I’m a titan, and I know that I don’t want to question it.
But here’s the thing: the more successful I become, the more shows, the more episodes, the more barriers broken, the more work there is to do, the more balls in the air, the more eyes on me, the more history stares, the more expectations there are. The more I work to be successful, the more I need to work. And what did I say about work? I love working, right? The nation I’m building, the marathon I’m running, the troops, the canvas, the high note, the hum, the hum, the hum. I like that hum. I love that hum. I need that hum. I am that hum. Am I nothing but that hum?
And then the hum stopped. Overworked, overused, overdone, burned out. The hum stopped.
Now, my three daughters are used to the truth that their mother is a single working titan. Harper tells people, “My mom won’t be there, but you can text my nanny.” And Emerson says, “Honey, I’m wanting to go to ShondaLand.” They’re children of a titan. They’re baby titans. They were 12, 3, and 1 when the hum stopped. The hum of the engine died. I stopped loving work. I couldn’t restart the engine. The hum would not come back. My hum was broken. I was doing the same things I always did, all the same titan work, 15-hour days, working straight through the weekends, no regrets, never surrender, a titan never sleeps, a titan never quits, full hearts, clear eyes, yada, whatever. But there was no hum. Inside me was silence. Four television programs, 70 hours of TV, three shows in production at a time, sometimes four. Four television programs, 70 hours of TV, three shows in production at a time … I was the perfect titan. I was a titan you could take home to your mother. All the colors were the same, and I was no longer having any fun. And it was my life. It was all I did. I was the hum, and the hum was me. So what do you do when the thing you do, the work you love, starts to taste like dust?
Now, I know somebody’s out there thinking, “Cry me a river, stupid writer titan lady.”
But you know, you do, if you make, if you work, if you love what you do, being a teacher, being a banker, being a mother, being a painter, being Bill Gates, if you simply love another person and that gives you the hum, if you know the hum, if you know what the hum feels like, if you have been to the hum, when the hum stops, who are you? What are you? What am I? Am I still a titan? If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?
And then my Southern waitress toddler asks me a question. I’m on my way out the door, I’m late, and she says, “Momma, wanna play?”
And I’m just about to say no, when I realize two things. One, I’m supposed to say yes to everything, and two, my Southern waitress didn’t call me “honey.” She’s not calling everyone “honey” anymore. When did that happen? I’m missing it, being a titan and mourning my hum, and here she is changing right before my eyes. And so she says, “Momma, wanna play?” And I say, “Yes.” There’s nothing special about it. We play, and we’re joined by her sisters, and there’s a lot of laughing, and I give a dramatic reading from the book Everybody Poops. Nothing out of the ordinary.
And yet, it is extraordinary, because in my pain and my panic, in the homelessness of my humlessness, I have nothing to do but pay attention. I focus. I am still. The nation I’m building, the marathon I’m running, the troops, the canvas, the high note does not exist. All that exists are sticky fingers and gooey kisses and tiny voices and crayons and that song about letting go of whatever it is that Frozen girl needs to let go of.
It’s all peace and simplicity. The air is so rare in this place for me that I can barely breathe. I can barely believe I’m breathing. Play is the opposite of work. And I am happy. Something in me loosens. A door in my brain swings open, and a rush of energy comes. And it’s not instantaneous, but it happens, it does happen. I feel it. A hum creeps back. Not at full volume, barely there, it’s quiet, and I have to stay very still to hear it, but it is there. Not the hum, but a hum.
And now I feel like I know a very magical secret. Well, let’s not get carried away. It’s just love. That’s all it is. No magic. No secret. It’s just love. It’s just something we forgot. The hum, the work hum, the hum of the titan, that’s just a replacement. If I have to ask you who I am, if I have to tell you who I am, if I describe myself in terms of shows and hours of television and how globally badass my brain is, I have forgotten what the real hum is. The hum is not power and the hum is not work-specific. The hum is joy-specific. The real hum is love-specific. The hum is the electricity that comes from being excited by life. The real hum is confidence and peace. The real hum ignores the stare of history, and the balls in the air, and the expectation, and the pressure. The real hum is singular and original. The real hum is God’s whisper in my ear, but maybe God was whispering the wrong words, because which one of the gods was telling me I was the titan?
It’s just love. We could all use a little more love, a lot more love. Any time my child asks me to play, I will say yes. I make it a firm rule for one reason, to give myself permission, to free me from all of my workaholic guilt. It’s a law, so I don’t have a choice, and I don’t have a choice, not if I want to feel the hum.
I wish it were that easy, but I’m not good at playing. I don’t like it. I’m not interested in doing it the way I’m interested in doing work. The truth is incredibly humbling and humiliating to face. I don’t like playing. I work all the time because I like working. I like working more than I like being at home. Facing that fact is incredibly difficult to handle, because what kind of person likes working more than being at home?
Well, me. I mean, let’s be honest, I call myself a titan. I’ve got issues.
And one of those issues isn’t that I am too relaxed.
We run around the yard, up and back and up and back. We have 30-second dance parties. We sing show tunes. We play with balls. I blow bubbles and they pop them. And I feel stiff and delirious and confused most of the time. I itch for my cell phone always. But it is OK. My tiny humans show me how to live and the hum of the universe fills me up. I play and I play until I begin to wonder why we ever stop playing in the first place.
You can do it too, say yes every time your child asks you to play. Are you thinking that maybe I’m an idiot in diamond shoes? You’re right, but you can still do this. You have time. You know why? Because you’re not Rihanna and you’re not a Muppet. Your child does not think you’re that interesting.
You only need 15 minutes. My two- and four-year-old only ever want to play with me for about 15 minutes or so before they think to themselves they want to do something else. It’s an amazing 15 minutes, but it’s 15 minutes. If I’m not a ladybug or a piece of candy, I’m invisible after 15 minutes.
And my 13-year-old, if I can get a 13-year-old to talk to me for 15 minutes I’m Parent of the Year.
15 minutes is all you need. I can totally pull off 15 minutes of uninterrupted time on my worst day. Uninterrupted is the key. No cell phone, no laundry, no anything. You have a busy life. You have to get dinner on the table. You have to force them to bathe. But you can do 15 minutes. My kids are my happy place, they’re my world, but it doesn’t have to be your kids, the fuel that feeds your hum, the place where life feels more good than not good. It’s not about playing with your kids, it’s about joy. It’s about playing in general. Give yourself the 15 minutes. Find what makes you feel good. Just figure it out and play in that arena.
I’m not perfect at it. In fact, I fail as often as I succeed, seeing friends, reading books, staring into space. “Wanna play?” starts to become shorthand for indulging myself in ways I’d given up on right around the time I got my first TV show, right around the time I became a titan-in-training, right around the time I started competing with myself for ways unknown. 15 minutes? What could be wrong with giving myself my full attention for 15 minutes? Turns out, nothing. The very act of not working has made it possible for the hum to return, as if the hum’s engine could only refuel while I was away. Work doesn’t work without play.
It takes a little time, but after a few months, one day the floodgates open and there’s a rush, and I find myself standing in my office filled with an unfamiliar melody, full on groove inside me, and around me, and it sends me spinning with ideas, and the humming road is open, and I can drive it and drive it, and I love working again. But now, I like that hum, but I don’t love that hum. I don’t need that hum. I am not that hum. That hum is not me, not anymore. I am bubbles and sticky fingers and dinners with friends. I am that hum. Life’s hum. Love’s hum. Work’s hum is still a piece of me, it is just no longer all of me, and I am so grateful. And I don’t give a crap about being a titan, because I have never once seen a titan play Red Rover, Red Rover.
I said yes to less work and more play, and somehow I still run my world. My brain is still global. My campfires still burn. The more I play, the happier I am, and the happier my kids are. The more I play, the more I feel like a good mother. The more I play, the freer my mind becomes. The more I play, the better I work. The more I play, the more I feel the hum, the nation I’m building, the marathon I’m running, the troops, the canvas, the high note, the hum, the hum, the other hum, the real hum, life’s hum. The more I feel that hum, the more this strange, quivering, uncocooned, awkward, brand new, alive non-titan feels like me. The more I feel that hum, the more I know who I am. I’m a writer, I make stuff up, I imagine. That part of the job, that’s living the dream. That’s the dream of the job. Because a dream job should be a little bit dreamy.
I said yes to less work and more play. Titans need not apply.