For Shonda Rhimes, saying she has a competitive bone in her body doesn’t cover it. She’s made of the stuff.
“I am a highly competitive person. And I come from a family where there are rules about whether or not we can play Scrabble with strangers, because it depends on whether they seem like strangers who will be terrified by our behaviour.” — Shonda Rhimes
The 45-year-old writer and producer is currently the most powerful African-American female screenwriter in television. Take away the adjectives ‘African-American’ and ‘female’ and that sentence is probably still true. In an age where network television is struggling, Rhimes has remained one of the few hitmakers.
From the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, to its popular spin-off Private Practice, and her more recent political show Scandal, Rhimes’ shows are the backbone of ABC’s Thursday night prime time line-up.
And the key to her success? That Rhimes family competitive streak.
“It’s always made me want to be the best in my class, or the smartest person doing something, or work the hardest. I like to be really good at what I’m doing. It’s important.” — Shonda Rhimes
In fact, her competitive nature is what got her into screenwriting in the first place. She had always dreamed of being a writer, but her dreams consisted more of writing novels in Parisian cafes than writing for prime time TV in L.A. After graduating from Dartmouth, she heard that getting into USC film school was even more difficult than getting into Harvard Law. Naturally, she applied, was accepted, and graduated with her Masters.
Rhimes began her screenwriting career working in film. She worked on both The Princess Diaries 2 and Crossroads early in her career. She first considered switching to television after adopting her infant daughter, Harper. Rhimes found herself watching a lot of television while at home with Harper, and discovered that that was where the real character development was happening. She brought the idea up with her agent, wrote her first pilot script for Grey’s Anatomy, and film quickly became a thing of the past.
She didn’t start in TV as an expert, but instead learned to write for the medium by doing just that — writing. She learned how to run a business and manage the actors, writers, crew and producers on her show the same way, by simply doing it. And she’s not afraid to break conventional TV practices. Grey’s Anatomy has the most diverse staff on air and both Scandal and her recent hit How To Get Away With Murder have strong and talented African-american women in the leading roles.
Rhimes has always made sure that her competitive spirit remains a positive force, and has never let her desire to be the best stop her from trying new things, or doing old things in new ways.
“The only way it works is if you’re better than, faster than, stronger than, smarter than. That’s what gets you where you’re going.” — Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes was born and raised a competitor, and has seen the successes she has because she understands what it means and what it takes to win. To channel your inner Shonda, always make sure you’re putting 110% of your effort into your work. The only way to be the best is to work harder, faster, and smarter than everybody else.
The Only One: A Talk with Shonda Rhimes
Image Credit: New York Magazine