The crowd is hushed as she speaks. A wide grin splits the face of a blonde woman in the third row. Hundreds around her sit in rapture, barely moving a muscle as the woman before them drops prose like paint on a canvas.
It’s not surprising.
Shonda Rhimes is a titan. She is the writer, producer, and creator of cult TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. She’s obviously doing something right, as millions of people all over the world tune into her addicting television series, yearning to hear what will happen next in “Shondaland.”
It’s inspiring, to be sure. No one has done what she has done, or broken the boundaries she has broken. So how does she do it? Create content and story so unique and engaging as to have earned the right to call herself a titan of the industry? In this moving TED talk, Shonda talks about the thing that drives her. She calls it: The hum.
“The hum is a drug, the hum is music, the hum is God's whisper in her ear.” Following this hum into her self-proclaimed “Year of Saying Yes” is what catapulted her rise to stardom. It was everything.
And then suddenly, without warning, the hum stopped.
When Shonda’s youngest child of three turned one, she hit a wall. The hum disappeared. And she didn’t know why.
In her talk, Shonda asks the audience: “So what do you do when the thing you do— the work you love— starts to taste like dust?”
This is not an uncommon phenomenon, because humans are not un-complex creatures. We move, change, and adapt. Things that drive us one year may feel stale and boring the next. This is understandable, of course. One would never expect to fit into the same shoes at age eighteen as they did at age seven. And yet, when our lifelong dream no longer seems to bring us joy, the shock can be devastating. We flail, not knowing who we are or what we are doing.
So how can we regain it once it is lost?
Shonda’s answer to this came during what she now refers to as: My Year of Saying Yes to Everything.
To be fair, Shonda began this practice long before the hum went AWOL. Rhymes attributes saying “yes” when she’d like to say “no” as the pivotal shift in her life, one that forced her to overcome her fears and become the sensation she is today. But the question that changed her life after the hum went away was not a request for a television spot or a speaking gig or an acting role.
One day, as she was running out the door, her child asked her to play. She was about to say no, that she was running late, and then remembered her law of yes. That’s when everything changed.
Shonda Rhymes, titan of industry, creator and writer, beloved by millions, started to play.
Play is what saved her, because as Shonda put it, “Play is the opposite of work.” Slowly, by introducing the act of play into her daily life, the hum began to return. She had found a tiny space for herself where she could imagine and make mistakes and be. The hum returned, only this time, she didn’t call it a drug or music or God’s whisper in her ear. She called it love.
How do we find that hum when dream has turned to slate in our bones, and our compass seems permanently stuck on spin?
The formula is simple: Find something that brings you joy. Set aside 15 minutes every day. Do it.
Sometimes, the best way to succeed at what we love is to devote time doing something else that feeds our soul. Then, once we have been nourished, can we return to our dream refueled and revitalized.
“It’s not about playing with your kids; it’s about joy. It’s about playing in general.”
If you read this at a time when you feel stuck and lost, the hum a distant memory, consider asking: how do you play? What brings you joy? And what would happen if you just said YES?