Shonda Rhimes is one of the most successful screenwriter/director/producers working in the television business. She's also a woman.
With the television industry still largely dominated by men — according to a 2013 Women's Media Center report, in the 2011-2012 season women only made up 26% of show creators and 25% of executive producers — Rhimes' success is a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration, not just for women in the television industry but for women in all male-dominated industries.
Her impressive resume includes creating Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and the wildly popular Scandal, and this fall she's bringing a new show, How to Get Away With Murder, to the airwaves. So what can all of us women working in male-dominated work forces learn from Rhimes about success and how to achieve it? Quite a lot. Hers is an outlook that all women (and all people) could stand to adopt. We gathered up just 13 of the many excellent Rhimes quotes that sum up how she made it happen, and hopefully through these we can glean how we can too. Go forth and conquer.
"You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day, so start writing. You don't have a job? Get one. Any job. Don't sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else." -Dartmouth commencement speech
In other words, stop talking about it — definitely stop whining about it — and, in the immortal words of Nike: Just. Do. It. There's an age-old adage about never trying being the biggest failure of all. It's age-old for a reason: It's true.
“I remember saying, very almost jokingly, I’m going to take over the world through television, that’s my plan. And I said it to my agent, and I said it to my friends, and I said it to myself.” - "Oprah’s Next Chapter" interview
Aim high. And then never stop reaching. Joking or not (and we sort of suspect not), Rhimes realized the power of the repeated affirmation of her future media domination. And she believed it. Good thing she didn't tell everyone that her plan was to dominate the world of 9 to 5 office drudgery.
“I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.” - New York Times profile
Your gender doesn't define you, nor does the color of your skin. Or your sexuality. Or how attractive you are perceived to be. Or any other number of descriptors we use to keep ourselves, and others, pigeonholed and, subsequently, down. We are the sum of our parts and, more importantly, we are what we do with our own unique equation. Using a moment's breath apologizing for that is a big waste of time.
“I was 4 and dictating stories into a tape recorder, and my mom typed them up.” - 2013 Fortune magazine interview
Rhimes told Fortune that her writing career began at just 4 years old, when her mother would help her translate her fledgling ideas onto the page. Which brings us to another point: Mothers (and fathers!), encourage your daughters (and all your children) to be anything they want to be. If you weren't encouraged as a child, encourage yourself. Start today.
“What was great for me about ‘Scandal’ was I had earned a lot of political capital with the network. I had done ‘Grey’s,’ I had done ‘Private Practice.’ What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn’t worried about what anyone else thought. This one was for me.” - New York Times profile
Women tend to be people-pleasers, worried about making sure everyone is happy. To that, we must learn to say screw it. Sure, sometimes you have to play the game and, in business as in life, sometimes it is about sacrificing your own desires and swallowing your pride for a greater good. But then, other times, it's about doing exactly what you want and focusing on what makes you happy. Life is about balance, and that holds true for any career.
"A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It's a hashtag. It's you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show. I do it all the time. For me, it's Game of Thrones. Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.” - Dartmouth commencement speech
There are a lot of "hashtag activists" out there who are likely taking umbrage with this quote. And, sure, a hashtag campaign can open up a great conversation. But that's all it is — a conversation. You can talk about the change you want to see in the world, or in yourself, but until you be that change, it's just a whole lot of chatter.
“I never, ever pay attention to the ratings. I stopped paying attention to the ratings somewhere around season two or three of Grey’s. It’s something I have no control over, so I don’t even pay attention.” - 2013 Vulture interview
In online journalism, there's a saying: "Don't read the comments." The same holds true for many actors and musicians, who try not to pay attention to reviews and critics, lest they find themselves mired in all the negativity. No matter how much success you've achieved, there will always be detractors (often even more the farther along you get into your career) and, hey, sometimes you're going to mess up. It's best not to dwell on it, it won't get you anywhere good.
“I think that shadowy life, that completely secret life, the duality of that existence is interesting." — On her interest in telling the story from a mistress' point of view in a 2013 Salon interview
Contrary to what the patriarchy would have women believe, ladies don't have to be all sweetness and light all the time. Sometimes it pays to get a little dark. Moreover, Rhimes understands that by being in touch with some of her "dark and twisty" inclinations (to quote Meredith Grey) you reveal some important things about yourself you might not know especially if you're too busy trying to be nice and polite all the time. Plus, having a little edge is just a hell of a lot more interesting.
"Most of the women I saw on TV didn't seem like people I actually knew. They felt like ideas of what women are." - 2006 O Magazine interview
Early on in her career, in a conversation between two women who are a far cry from anyone's traditional idea of what two women could be, Rhimes told Oprah why she felt compelled to write strong, multi-faceted female characters for television. It was because, when she turned on the tube, all she saw were caricatures of "women," as sketched out by men. Don't let anyone shape your character but you.
"Cynicism is a choice. Optimism is a better choice." My mantra for the season and for LIFE right now." - Twitter
Rhimes borrowed her current mantra from President Obama (She could do worse!), and she's right in her assertion that it's an important thing to keep in mind in one's career and one's personal life. It's easy to be negative, to mask any fears or insecurities with with a jaded facade. Don't. You'd be surprised how much more you can accomplish when you're willing to let that particular crutch go and think happy thoughts.
“Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you. But don't be an asshole.” -Dartmouth commencement speech
This soundbite from her Dartmouth commencement speech hopefully won't be true of your every tomorrow, but some days it will be true. It bears mentioning because it's Rhimes' way of saying to keep things in perspective. Yes, you might be having a really, really bad day at work. But somewhere, in another corner of the world, another woman is struggling to feed her children. Another is being subjugated, raped or worse. Rhimes went on to say, "Hard is relative. I come from a middle-class family, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddler during the women's movement, I live in the United States of America, all of which means I'm allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus; and I went to Dartmouth and I earned an Ivy League degree."
That she did. Perspective is everything, and it's important to keep yours in balance.
"You know what I wanted to be? I wanted to be Nobel Prize Winning Author Toni Morrison. That was my dream. [...] Guess what? I couldn’t be Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. Because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn’t interested in giving it up. [...] [Eventually I figured out that] I could dream about being Toni Morrison. Or I could do. At film school, I discovered an entirely new way of telling stories. A way that suited me. A way that brought me joy. A way that flipped this switch in my brain and changed the way I saw the world. Years later, I had dinner with Toni Morrison. All she wanted to talk about was Grey's Anatomy. That never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped dreaming of becoming her and gotten busy becoming myself." - Dartmouth commencement speech
It's great to have role models and wonderful to have people who inspire you, but don't strive to be them. Strive to be you.
"Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change." - Dartmouth commencement speech
Need we say more?