Recently, I have been reflecting on the concept of mentorship: what it is, what it is not, what the best mentors do, and what they do not do.  Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea that one must be declared “mentor” or “mentee” to fill such a role in another’s life, or that these declarations even mean such a relationship exists. In fact, I am of the mindset that we awaken to mentorships, the same way we would to important friendships–through a progressive realization over time–and there are certain behaviors that help us identify who these people are in our lives.

So, what is mentorship?

Mentorship, at its core, is a balanced intellectual and emotional relationship between two or more individuals who are mutually committed to your, and their own, self-actualization in the context of a particular trade, but more importantly, within the broader context of life. While there can be many behaviors that account for this type of relationship, the following fifteen are the ones I believe make or break the best mentors:

1. The best mentors recognize that at any moment during the relationship, he or she can be in either role; the student can be the teacher and the teacher can be the student. In other words, the best mentors are open-minded in their pursuit of truth.

2. The best mentors recognize that being the boss does not make them a mentor; it likely prevents them from being a great one.  They know that when the power dynamic is lopsided, the relationship is at a greater risk to fail, and that business objectives may pose a conflict of interest.

3. The best mentors know that personal development does not care about imposed timelines, even when the mentee cares. Some things need more time than what was allotted, and some need less.

4. The best mentors recognize that their input is not a mandate but a recommendation and that they can be wrong.

5. The best mentors know when to get out of your way, and how to step in. The how includes the what and why, and often cannot be done correctly without a history of swimming with you.

6. The best mentors do not say, “why didn’t you come to me?” when their mentee was lost/confused/failing/afraid/spinning/exhausted/sick. Instead, they say, “I want you to know you can count on me. I have your back even if you don’t know what you need. Not knowing should not deter you from engaging. Figuring it out together is what makes this relationship great.”

7. The best mentors learn about your tendencies and triggers. Together you become collectively more self-aware.

8. The best mentors value emotional and physical safety and guide you with compassion. They respect your weaknesses and do not use them as weapons against you.

9. The best mentors directly acknowledge your weaknesses. They guide you to build around them so that you can win.

10. The best mentors recognize that the conditions that led to their success are variables that may or may not necessarily apply to your success.

11. The best mentors help you determine what your real situation is before advising you. They listen and, yes, judge, but they do it with your best interest at heart. They help you figure out what is true, and how to excel in the ways you need.

12. The best mentors are humble and empathetic. They put themselves in your shoes.

13. The best mentors help you stretch outside of your comfort zone. They know that with growth comes pain, and they help you experience that pain in the most efficient way so that you can evolve past it.

14. The best mentors are committed to maintaining the relationship, even if the formalities of the role ends.

15. The best mentors click with you, and you click with them. The caring between you is genuine. They want you to live a happy life.

What does it mean to you?

About the Author

Tara Makhmali recently released her debut novel, MISSWIRED, a work of literary fiction. She is the CEO of CommonSmarts Media and has been a certified PMP for nearly a decade. She has worked for notable companies such as Pearson, FCB Advertising, Bridgewater Associates, and HBO. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Above all, she is a curious person who cares for people and progress.


Read my latest piece, which was featured on the cover of SWAAY magazine. Click here.

By Tara Makhmali | CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC | Author of MISSWIRED

The question of whether one should self-publish or publish traditionally is a misnomer because what does it mean to “publish traditionally” and what does it mean to “self-publish,” given that the two have been in flux for over a decade? Traditional publishing is no longer traditional, given how people consume content, and individuals who pursue self-publishing are simply small business owners that leverage available platforms and services and outsource everything else.

So the question is: what problem set do you want to acquire? And more specifically, where do you want to sit in the process and can you bankroll it? Here are two scenarios for a debut author.

Problem Set One: Traditional Publishing

The assumption with traditional publishing is that you will write a draft of a manuscript (or a synopsis of one), pitch it to an agent, and then that agent will pitch you to a publisher who will then edit, transcode, print, warehouse, distribute, market, publicize, and sell your book and its many derivatives.

  • In this scenario, the common misnomer is that you will release your perch (a draft of your manuscript) into the hands of an agent/publisher and, eureka, a best-selling, award-winning book will pop out at the other end. This is not the case.
  • Just because a publisher has some of the above capabilities and hopefully the established contacts, that does not mean they will give all of them to you, do all of them for you, or do any of them well. Even if they offer all of these perks, lets safely assume that every company has pockets of talent, and this talent makes up for 20% of its people. The other 80% varies and can possibly be as harmful to you as it can be helpful.
  • Okay, so what would compel a publisher to give a debut author the crème de la crème service? And even if they get that white-glove service, consumer behavior is unpredictable and complicated, and publishers are not typically hailed for their marketing, advertising, and publicity savvy. This means that if you already are a successful media or industry personality, have a strong social following (a.k.a. are an “influencer”), or have a credential or award that establishes you as a toted expert in a particular field and you intend to write about that field, then you have priority seating in the nebulous, traditional “old guard” world. How do you break through these nepotistic barriers, and do you want to? What would be the motivation to pursue a traditional publisher as a debut novelist without all the proverbial clout/privilege? The motivation would be to gain recognition, and that becomes a very personalized process that depends on individual strengths and weaknesses. We do not live in a society where one’s true-life experience is adequately portrayed through a résumé (like that defining moment when you sat by your dying father’s bedside for a month and felt his hand go limp as you observed his final breath). It should be, but it is not.

Problem Set Two: Self-Publishing

As a self-publisher, or what some people call “artisanal” or “indie” publisher, you own the entire process, as opposed to taking a seat within it. You bypass the pitch to an agent and publisher, and then you cherry-pick who you want to work with to develop and sell your product. This includes everything from editing to design to marketing, publicity and so on.

  • In this scenario, the common self-publishing misnomer is that once you write your manuscript, all you have to do is plop it somewhere and ta-da, you will have a best-selling, award-winning book. This is not the case. The reality is you’re building a business that will serve as platform for the remainder of your writing career.
  • If you don’t have the product development network, you’ll have to build one, and if you don’t know the product development process, you’ll have to learn as you go.
  • While consumers don’t appear to care too much about whether a writer is traditionally or self-published, indicated by the fact indie ebook sales constitute for roughly 30-40% of market share in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand*, there is a misperception that self-publishing is what a writer should do after they first try to get a traditional publishing deal, or that it’s what you do when you have failed as a writer. This narrative shouldn’t surprise anyone since, when it registers, self-publishing works against the bread and butter of the traditional publisher, not in favor of it. So yes, it can be a challenging misconception and sure, self-publishing is not for everyone, but when you consider who gets priority within a publisher’s Rolodex, the question becomes what is your motivation? How neatly do you fit the traditional mold? (Are you already a highly accomplished and affluent person with lots of social media followers?)

Notice how neither of these two scenarios has much to do with the quality of the writing or the quality of a person as a writer. Realistically, the people who care about these types of articles are either writers who are trying to break into the business or individuals who are concerned they may be losing validity within it.

A Framework For Decision-Making

So again, the question is, which problem set do you want to inherit? To figure that out you have to ask:

  1. What are your goals and your motivations?
  2. What do traditional publishers actually look for and how well do you map to it?
  3. What other skills can you bring to the table?
  4. What are your financial parameters? (I didn’t mention this earlier, but the royalties for a self-published author are typically far better than for a traditionally published author, but the startup costs are much higher for an indie author, particularly if you’re aiming for excellent.)

Anecdotally, I can tell you that when I wrote MISSWIRED, and published it through my company, CommonSmarts Media, LLC, my goal was (and continues to be) to establish myself as an excellent writer of literary fiction and, for me, that means doing everything possible to ensure that I have an opportunity to iterate on my work, now and as long as I am alive, based on direct feedback from mass consumers, at my own optimal productivity pace, and with a handful of credible people that I’ve carefully selected. I don’t see self-publishing as a last resort; I see it as a must for any writer who wants to do this for life, any writer with product development experience, and any writer with an entrepreneurial mindset.

I am motivated and invigorated by running a business, both as a woman and as a minority who, at the onset, might otherwise have difficulty breaking into the nepotistic model of traditional publishing. Additionally, I am learning about what the business of selling books (vs. writing and producing them) actually entails, so if I ever do choose to work through a traditional publisher, I’ll be equipped with the knowledge to advocate for myself far more effectively and know when/where/how to fill any gaps in their offering.

This may be the opposite advice espoused by advocates of traditional publishing, but again, agents and traditional publishers are in direct competition with self-publishers for market share, and the world always needs quality writers. Hence, we’re not comparing apples to apples here.

Since I already have experience working in publishing (I used to lead the development of multimillion-dollar educational programs) and have gained wonderful experience from the projects and companies for whom I have worked (Bridgewater Associates, HBO, FCB Advertising), I love taking on all the challenges of running a small business.

I’m generally more comfortable in an entrepreneurial environment, partially from my upbringing, but also because of my naturally creative and analytical nature.

Ultimately, I opted not to acquire the traditional agent/publisher problem set because it felt like an arbitrary impediment to my end goal, given my experience, and my passion.

Now, if a traditional publisher reframed their offering and came pitching to me out of the blue today, I might reconsider it, but even then, would they pursue me without my initial upfront investment? Would it be worth it? I don’t know, but to quote Rayna James from the television series Nashville, “there’s plenty of sunshine for all.”


*February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand

If you have more questions about whether to pitch to a traditional publisher or to self-publish, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I know these decisions aren’t easy to make.

I’m terrified of public speaking. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t see my pulse explode like lightning behind my eyes while the embodiment of my childhood self scaled a tree. You’d see a polished woman with a gleaming smile, a woman who appears as though she can’t be rattled. I’d pull it off.

But I’m not perfect, and each time you see a talking head, cross-armed, or upright on stage with a professional photo that hails them as a success, I want you to know – it’s likely an illusion. Exposing our inner world to our outer world would require a daunting degree of integrity, a characteristic far less common than we choose to believe, a characteristic too threatening to our prevailing system of hobnobbery and haberdashery.

Let’s opine. What do you think sets my pulse on fire?

“Preparedness,” say some people.

“Lack of self-acceptance,” others believe.

“Breathing deeply will solve the problem.” Hasn’t worked yet.

“Just think of everyone naked.” Awkward. Not the way to go.

“Focus on the thing itself, the “what” of your art, then you won’t worry about what everyone thinks.”

That’s it. The last one: the “what of my art,” as in “what are you looking at?”

Maybe I don’t want to stand in the limelight. Maybe I’m already always in it. Maybe that’s what it means to be a woman in our society.

Maybe I don’t want more holes poked in my existence because it happens too often.

Maybe I’m working on my baggage.

But when I open up the bag and look inside, it’s filled with the same laundry all women are forced to carry. The same never-ending load.

As a teen, I was sent home from public school by the principle for wearing a pair of ripped jeans that had been patched up.

The reason: “they distracted the boys.”

What do ripped jeans have to do with my performance at school? Why was I penalized for their looks?

As a young professional, I was sent home by the head of the department for wearing a pair of mid-length shorts with a blazer (the same as many on my team) on the hottest day of the year. Of course, I was the only one sent home.

The reason: “If someone hits on you (specifically that man who has a crush on you), that will be a liability for us.”

Why was I penalized for his looks?

I once dated a man with credentials that shot through the roof. I was inspired by his commitment to his job. I aspired to commit to his level of productivity. I appreciated his creativity. Before we began dating, I told him, “I don’t understand why men give women flowers. Why do we rip life from the earth so that we can watch it die? What’s beautiful about that?”

So he bought me wooden roses. “These will never die,” he said.

I was smitten.

But that didn’t stop him from breaking into my email account and slut-shaming me to every person in my network ­– from family overseas to my employer – when I attempted leaving him. Imagine walking into the office the next day. At the time, there were no laws to protect me, just the stigma of being known as “the woman who was victimized.” Because, of course, this doesn’t happen to other women, a lot of other women.

Sure it does. It happens all the time. You can turn away,  but it’s not unusual. Worse, just look at what happens to women in porn. Oh, sure, porn is “girl power.” Just think for $1400 a pop, you can take it in the rear. The more violent; the more “It’s just an act. She wanted it. She deserved it.”  I wonder, will it be enough to pay for the prolapse too? One only need to look these women in the eyes to see the truth of their pain.

I’m tired of being judged. For working hard and being labeled a perfectionist, for pushing back and being deemed lazy. For being ignored. For being an outlier on a curve of generalities. For not being enough.

We talk about women’s self-confidence as though it’s women who need to change.

We tell them, lean in. Take on more. Apply for that job because your contemporaries are arrogant. Because they will beat their chests like bullies or strut there stuff like peacocks regardless of whether you apply or not.

We take on more. We take on heaps of unpaid labor and childcare. We tidy homes and prepare meals so others can stand on stage. And when we delegate the work, we load it onto, shocker, other low-paid women. We are bought and we are sold. And when a task goes amiss at our jobs, study after study shows that we take the blame. But we are withheld from receiving the credit.

We are held to another standard.

Then when one female superhero hits the privilege jackpot, and the stars align due to her own countless hours of hard work, and she pushes past the glass ceiling, and it appears on camera as though she is levitating down from the heavens, the reality is she’s crawling to the top, wondering, “how long can I balance in these stilettos before someone pushes me off the glass cliff?”

We seldom look at the data and say, let’s assess our hiring practices so that we weigh in the fact that women, as a whole, are more likely to apply for a job only when they are 100% qualified; that women are more heavily reprimanded when they fail; that they take on more at work; that they are less likely to receive credit. We rarely say let’s reshape our collective behavior so that when a woman fails at low priority tasks when she is performing her high priority tasks in an exemplary fashion, we reward her for taking the logical initiative to do what is better for our companies, and our societies. While we’re at it, let’s pay her for that unpaid labor in some way.

Instead, we tell her: be more confident.

Or we pick a fight – “Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you a stay-at-home mom or a working mom?” Apparently only one of these mothers is valuable. “Oh, you’re not planning to have children; that’s very selfish of you; you’re a monster.”

And we subconsciously think, “she’s too pretty to be smart or too female to be a genius (that distinction is for other people).”

We require perfection. But we don’t know what perfect is, let alone when it matters. And yet we have no problem using it as a weapon. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” we say. Of course, afterwards we reprimand her heavily for small mistakes, since anything less than perfect qualifies as a mistake.

Isn’t it time that we simply recognize that she is held to another standard … And we account for it?

What does this all have to do with standing in the limelight?


And yet everything.

Now, look at your daughters. Statistically, 1/3 of them will be sexually harassed at work, and 1/6 of them sexually assaulted.

Is that what you want?

Doesn’t it make you sick?

Are you going to say to them, “be more confident?”

Or are you going to say, “I’m going to fix this.”

Stop saying #Metoo. Start saying #IWillFixThis



Tara Makhmali is the author of MISSWIRED, a work of literary fiction, and the CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC.

Available for purchase on Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle

On grief (a poem)

There is a well
I have fallen into it
How ironic that I am encircled by wellness
When the outcome is grave

Perhaps if we cry
We’ll reach the brim
Perhaps if we descend as far as it goes
We’ll overflow

Cry dear friend
As long as you must
Time has no end
But oceans have thrust

Two hundred and eighty-two days—
The number of days she hummed on my back
To the tune of B-flat and a black hole
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C

That’s where I’d like to go for a swim,
In star and moonshine
Somewhere between your green-apple flesh
In the taste of sugar lips and grapevine

That’s from where all glow descends
From far away and wholly too close to see
That’s from where I carry my heart
Between my legs–oh, my back, help, my back, help, my knees

Somewhere between B-flat and a black hole
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C
Sprouted a Pharaoh from a flower
And they say she conquered, but we both know she is too kind to conquer
Too stubborn, too curly, and far too clever to care

Will she sleep in her own bed?
Perhaps if we are calm as though air
Perhaps if we conjure up Time,
The contortionist’s spine,
And we bend back, back, and back further still
Until over it spill, spill, spills in a great navy sea—
A ceiling—
Beating and breathing and teeming and teething
And oh, here it comes—gasp, exhale—another feeding

Then forward we arch
Weightless we stand
Attracted to a universe strung like pearls in a band
Is the weight the dream? The universe, the mirror, the land?

I don’t know.

But I hear it; it echoes; and oh how it flows
And when I think I understand it—surprise! It grows

It crawled from outside inside and played drums with my art
It waddled from where we, the light, drove the darkness apart
Floating and sinking and slinking back with a pull
Tumbling and rolling and twirling and spinning
Leaping and falling and crying and grinning

Listening only as we do to the sound of One soul
Minus two hundred and eighty-two days
Minus you
Is minus me
Equals B-flat
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C.

But her–
Never minus her, for she was born at one hundred and fifty pulses complete.
The rhythm of our infant’s infinite infallible beat
Where you, and I, and the circle repeat

Oh my loves, you are my loves.
Always and in all ways. And forever.

Dedicated to my husband Evan Steele Fensterstock on his birthday.
Inspired by the art of Aldo Tambellini, whose work and talk I was fortunate to see recently at the Anthology Film Archives as the guest of dear friend Dan Koff.

And by a black hole, which, in fact, sings.