British Columbia·Video

Shonda Rhimes: Saying yes to play saved me

"What do you do when the work you love tastes like dust?" asked Shonda Rhimes in her TED Talk Monday. You start by saying yes to play.

'What do you do when the work you love tastes like dust?' asks the TV titan at TED

Shonda Rhimes on stage at the TED 2016 conference in Vancouver, saying yes to less work and more play. (TED)

Two years ago, Shonda Rhimes would not have been on the stage at the TED conference in Vancouver.

Oh, she was famous enough, and had been for a while. This is the woman that had already created Grey's Anatomy, then Scandal — two network dramas with such high ratings and ardent fans it's said Rhimes "owns Thursday night" on TV.

She was being asked to speak at conferences, go to fancy parties, and sit with the Obamas at the Kennedy Center.

But two years ago, Shonda Rhimes was on the other side of her transformation.

Miserable, terrified to be herself, she'd lost the "hum" of happiness that had come from her writing and relentless work.

"I was no longer having any fun, and it was my life," Rhimes told TED attendees on Monday.

"What do you do when the thing you do, the work you love tastes like dust?"

Watch Shonda Rhimes' TED Talk.

Yes to play

Rhimes' transformation is documented in her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, released last fall.

"You never say yes to anything," her sister had told her at Thanksgiving in 2013, standing in the kitchen chopping onions. By her birthday, the following January, she resolved to say yes to everything for a year, including public appearances like the one at TED.

On Monday night she revealed her most important "yes," the one that brought back her hum.

It came when her three-year old daughter Emerson, who called everyone "honey," said a completely normal thing for a toddler. 

"Mama, wanna play?"

Rhimes — who is now responsible for four shows and 70 hours of television programming a season— was running late and didn't have time.

She was about to say 'no,' when she realized Emerson didn't say honey.

"Here she is changing right before my eyes," Rhimes recalled. "And I say yes."

The self-described TV "titan" got on the floor and goofed off, including a dramatic reading of the book Everybody Poops.

Rhimes resolved to always say yes when one of her three daughters (ages one, three and 12) asked to play. Even if it's just fifteen minutes.

"Saying yes to playing with my children likely saved my career," she told TED.

'I'm not good at playing'

By playing, the hum starts to creep back, she said. Blowing bubbles, and the girls popping them. Reading books. Singing songs.

"It's all sticky fingers and gooey kisses and letting go of whatever it is that Frozen girl needs to let go of," she said, referencing the Disney song.

Making it a firm rule helps, she said. Rhimes admits playing, even with the kids she loves, does not come naturally to her.

"I itch for my cell phone always," she confesses. "I'm not good at playing. I don't like it."

"The truth is incredibly humbling and humiliating to face. I like working more than I like being at home."

The hum is joy

Now, Rhimes says the hum she gets from "making things up" as a TV writer is back, but different.

"Now, I like that hum but ... that hum is not me," said Rhimes. "I am bubbles and sticky fingers and dinners with friends."

"My tiny humans show me how to live and my tiny humans fill me up."

Rhimes challenged the audience to play more, even just fifteen minutes a day, in whatever way makes them hum.

"The real hum ignores the stare of history ... It's just love, and joy."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?