Shonda Rhimes is known for being the creator and producer of the television shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, but within her family she was also known as the person who never said yes to anything. When her sister called her out on her knee-jerk reaction to say no to each and every invitation, Rhimes decided to commit to a year of saying yes to any unexpected offer that came her way.
During the next 12 months, Rhimes said yes when she was asked to give the commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth; yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live; and, most importantly, yes to playing with her three young daughters. She chronicled her experience the book A Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, sharing that saying yes helped her get over her anxiety around public speaking and find a better sense of balance in her life.
Rhimes’s reluctance to come out of her comfort zone isn’t uncommon, says Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. "We all want to preserve our sense of self and our sense of competence," he says. "There’s a natural tendency for people to be hesitant when asked to do something outside of their comfort zones. The problem is when you do this too often. If your primary response becomes no, you will never discover and test your true limits."
To get out of the rut of saying no, closely consider the invitation. "Is it totally out of your wheel house or is related to something you’ve done before?" asks Carducci, who suggests taking time to recall a past situation where you’ve done something similar and it was successful. "The problem with doing new things is that we automatically focus on the awkwardness and difficulty."
The more you say yes, the easier it will become, and saying yes can impact your life in several positive ways. Here are six reasons why you should consider saying yes:
When you say yes and try new things, you give others the courage to do the same, says Carducci. "It’s natural to feel awkward and self-critical, and think that everybody is judging you," he says. "But nobody is thinking about you; they’re thinking about themselves. When you’re willing to do something uncomfortable, it inspires other people to take action themselves."
Being the first person on the dance floor, for example, often encourages others to join in. "People don’t judge you as being not good; they judge you as being brave," says Carducci.
Our brains are constantly changing in response to what we experience; it’s a process called neuroplasticity, says Keith Rollag, author of What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations. "The implication is that if we can change what we experience, we can change our brain, and all the things that our brain facilitates, including intelligence, personality, habits, and attitudes," he says. "The easiest way to change what we experience is to put ourselves into new situations."
Saying yes to new experiences is especially important as you get older, says Rollag. "Researchers have found that as we enter middle age, our lives tend to become more routine, and we unconsciously become more comfortable and less willing to seek change," says Rollag.
As a result, aging often involves using less of our brains, and unused neurons stop generating new synapses and have fewer connections with other neurons. "Neuroscientists have found that they can promote neuron and synapse growth in the middle-aged and elderly by breaking up normal routines and putting people into new, challenging, interesting situations that force them to think and act in different ways," says Rollag.
Senior leaders are looking for people who are willing to be risk takers and try new things, says Richard Citrin, author of The Resilience Advantage. "The pathway to career success these days is to gain a diverse portfolio of skills—operations, marketing, logistics, HR—rather than just focusing on a narrow specific area," he says.
Regret is worse than rejection in the long run, says relationship advice columnist April Masini. "When you don’t say yes, you run the risk of discomfort, rejection, and realizing you made a mistake," she says.
When we try something new, our brains release large amounts of dopamine, a neurochemical that helps neurons create the new synapses, says Rollag. "Long ago, this sudden release often kept us alive, putting us in rapid learning mode to deal with emerging threats like predators," he says. "These days new situations are rarely fatal, but the dopamine release still helps us to be focused, alert, and primed to learn new things."
Dopamine also has another related effect on us; it makes us feel happy and alive. "We’ve all experienced the thrill of something new, and that excitement that comes from new accomplishments," says Rollag. "That’s dopamine at work. Scientists who study happiness have found that one of the best ways to bring more happiness into our lives is by meeting new people and trying new things."