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By Michael Lee · September 30, 2019
What are some of the ways that Shonda Rhimes found success in life and in Hollywood?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Shonda Rhimes is one of the most successful television writers, executive producers, and showrunners. She is best known as the showrunner — creator, head writer, and executive producer — of Grey’s Anatomy, its spin-off Private Practice, and the political thriller series Scandal.
“A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking of all the things they want to do and talking about it. But the idea that you’re not actually doing anything to get to where you want to go… you’re sort of waiting for the big magical moment or some door to open or some interesting or illuminating thing to happen… is very different from the hard day-to-day slogging… I think that hard work and taking every opportunity that comes your way, whether or not it seems like the most amazing one is the way to go.”
Success doesn’t come to you. You have to do the work and put yourself into positions that may present opportunities.
“I always knew as a kid that I was a writer, but I really never knew what I wanted to do. I always believed that that wasn’t a real job. So I thought that all of the things that interested me… like maybe I’d be a doctor, maybe I’d be a lawyer, maybe I’d go work in Washington… I always thought that those were the things I actually wanted to do for a living. Instead of understanding that those were the things that I wanted to research and write about for a living.”
Trust your instincts.
In a moving speech, Shonda answers a common question she gets, “Shonda, how do you do it all?”
She admits that whenever she is succeeding at one thing in her life, she’s failing at another. As a mother of three, when she’s spending time with her family, she’s failing in her career. When she’s succeeding in her career, she’s failing in some regard within her family life.
It’s a balance. You have to feel fulfilled by whatever it is that you take on and the many sacrifices.
“I just try to respect myself… the more you say ‘yes’ and the more you realize that you’re succeeding and that you’re overcoming something, the better you feel. The more powerful you feel. The more successful you feel. And the better you feel about yourself.”
If you’re always down on yourself, those are the type of results that you’re going to get. When you learn to appreciate where you have succeeded and what you’ve overcome, the better you will feel. And the better you feel about yourself, the more confident you’ll appear to anyone you interact with.
“It’s the doing of the thing that undoes the fear.”
It’s very easy to say no to taking on stories and projects that scare you. You think they’re going to be too hard to write. You think that you don’t have enough time. These are the projects that you should be taking on and you conquer your fears by saying ‘yes’ to them and challenging yourself to overcome those fears.”
She talks about initially wanting to emulate the career of others. She soon learned that she was only going to succeed by following her own path.
Be authentic. Be you. Write the way you want to write. Write what you want to write.
“It’s a willingness to really delve into this stuff. To have the difficult conversations.”
Success as a writer means that you need to learn to take on leadership at some point. The industry responds to someone that can dive into the work, have those difficult conversations, and ask the right questions — all for the good of the project. When people see that you can do that, you slowly start to learn how to lead. And when you display that ability, Hollywood responds to that.
“Own who you are and what you’ve done. Be proud of it.”
Luck does play a part in Hollywood success, but luck only gets you into the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It’s the work that gets you the success you crave. Without the work you’ve done, no luck can make the dream come true.
Own who you are and what you’ve done.
“Across the field of a difficult conversation lies peace.”
Difficult conversations are necessary, especially in this very collaborative industry. But you can’t shy away from those difficulties. You need to face them head on, whether it’s dealing with studio notes or collaborating with a writing partner.
Tackle those difficult conversations. Ignoring them only causes chaos, frustration, and resentment. Facing them leads to answers and peace.
This continues her mantra of facing difficulties, conquering your fears, and saying yes to what scares you.
In the video, she tells a story about a moment where a friend revealed a hard truth to her, pointing out that she always says “no” to things. This realization changed her life.
She’s a success because she says yes, no matter how scared she is to tackle new, different, or challenging things. And every writer can learn from this. The projects that scare you the most are often the projects that will force your best work to come out.
Watch the whole video with Shonda’s brilliant and inspiring elaboration on these points!
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