Our sister publication Entertainment Weekly recently had you on its cover with the headline “It’s Shonda Rhimes’ World. We Just Watch It.” What do you hope girls learn from your example?
That anything is possible. I meet a lot of young women today who defeat themselves by thinking they can’t do something before they’ve even tried! It literally has never occurred to me that I couldn’t achieve whatever I wanted to. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I’m not going to be an Olympic figure skater. [Laughs.]
Did you grow up believing that?
My parents were very instrumental in raising me with the idea that there is absolutely nothing that can't be accomplished. My father used to say, endlessly, “The only limit to your success is your own imagination.” I do think it's true. I wasn't allowed to believe that there were things that weren't available to me or that I wasn't able to do. If I didn't do them, it was because I didn't come up with the right plan, or because I didn't work hard enough, or because I didn't attempt it. I think that's a really valuable lesson.
What were you like as a kid?
Quiet. I played the oboe. I was a nerd and very happy to be one. I was the youngest of six. My parents were educators. I was always reading. I felt that inside of a book, I could go anywhere.
The female characters you write are well known for their strength and confidence. Do you ever get nervous or uncomfortable?
Billion of times. I hate public speaking. I’m a writer. People don’t become writers so other people can look at them. But I don’t let my shyness stop me. Even if it means I have a complete meltdown before going on stage, I’ve learned to power through it. It’s the doing-it-anyway part that’s important.
How did you manage to do it anyway?
I didn't for a long time. The genesis of the book I have just written, The Year of Yes ($19; amazon.com beginning Nov. 9), is the fact that, for a while, I was not doing it anyway. The book came about because I was sitting around with my sister, and she said to me, “You never say yes to anything. All you ever do is work and come home.” I realized she was right; I had become even more introverted, and I was working more than ever. So I challenged myself to say yes to every single thing that frightened me, every offer that came my way, for a year. I did Jimmy Kimmel Live, I gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth, I guest-starred on The Mindy Project … The way I coped was I would push through. Part of the time, the haze of fear would mean that you almost couldn't remember the experience. Now, I really try to just enjoy it and remember that none of it really matters. It's literally not brain surgery. I'm not Meredith Grey.
You became fearless. As a mom of three girls, is that something you feel determined about passing along?
Absolutely. I want them to have integrity, but I also want them to be strong and confident, the kind of women who will speak up for themselves. Everyone’s always like, “Well, what about kindness?” I say, “Yes, I want them to be kind. But I also want them to be competitive, kickass, badass women!”
Having it all: Do you think it’s possible?
That’s a complex question because each person’s definition should be different. First, that the idea of having it all means only one thing—having a husband, a baby, and a career—is appalling. Second, nobody asks men that question. Whenever reporters ask me, “How do you do it? How do you manage?” I always say, “Did you ask this of [TV writer and producer] Chuck Lorre?”
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever gotten?
[Silence.] I’m thinking really hard. [More silence.] The reason I'm thinking really hard is not because I have gotten so many compliments I have to filter through them, it’s because I try really hard to not internalize any compliments, in the same way I have decided that if you believe the good things people say about you, you also have to believe the bad things.
What are you most proud of?
Other than my kids, the thing I'm most proud of is that I have managed to build this little empire that I said I was going to build. And I did it a little bit shamelessly. Women never just say, “I did this thing and it's awesome.” We are always very self-deprecating. We almost never own anything that we do. Men do it constantly. When we took that big photo with my entire cast behind me that was in EW, People, and Essence, I stood there in the middle of all of them, and I was like, "Holy crap." Really, this empire got built because I made stuff up in my head, which is the same thing I've been doing since I was 3 years old. That is something I am very proud of.
Women in Hollywood—everywhere really—feel this pressure to look a certain way, and be a certain size, and your shows have been lauded for their diversity in both aspects. Is that a conscious choice you make?
No. I've really never felt the pressure to look a certain way or be a certain size, or cared about that pressure. When I write shows and I look for actors, I look for people who are good actors and look like people. I'm never interested in seeing an entire room of impossibly thin and impossibly beautiful people standing together. That doesn't look realistic to me. That looks weird.
If you could tell every girl in the world one thing, what would it be?
That the only limit to your success is your own imagination. My father, unfortunately, was right.
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