When I was in college, I asked one of my professors to be my mentor. It felt important for me to find a mentor. He said he couldn’t do that. He only mentors his teaching assistants. But we could get breakfast every other week or so.

I was bummed. I really wanted a mentor, and it took a lot of courage for me to ask. In spite of my disappointment, I accepted his breakfast offer. We met nearly every other week over the course of a year. He even had me over to his house a few times.

For the past decade, we’ve stayed connected. We don’t keep up regularly, but I know I could call him if I needed something. Everyone wants a mentor. The desire for older guidance and wisdom runs deep. It’s almost primal. The Hero’s Journey speaks to this: As the hero leaves the known and enters into the unknown, she meets a mentor who helps her face the challenges of her quest.

Mentors help us navigate the unknowns of life and work. But mentors rarely ever look the way we think they should. Most of us picture mentors offering dedicated one-on-one time. We think of a mentor as some sort of formalized relationship with a close friend who is older and more experienced than we are.

That’s what I thought it meant when I asked that professor to be my mentor. And that’s also how he seemed to think about it as well. But now I’m in my mid-thirties and have never had that kind of formal mentor. I could feel sad about this and lament that I’m not worthy of mentorship.

I could also feel angry about it and defiantly say that I don’t need a mentor and that I’ll show everyone what I can do without a mentor. Or I can realize the places in my life where there have been kind and generous voices helping me take the next step.

The truth is that though I’ve never had a capital “M” formal mentor, I’ve had many mentors.

Though it has never looked the way I thought it should, I’ve had many experienced people who I have learned from at different moments in my life.

Though that professor back in college may have had some students that he had a formal mentor relationship with, when I think about the relationship that we had, it has many of the characteristics of a mentor relationship.

Characteristics of a Mentoring Relationship

There are a few characteristics of a mentoring relationship. Most mentor relationships will possess some of these attributes and few will have all of them. It’s helpful to think through this list and see what is true of your relationships.

  1. Mentors are more experienced. This almost goes without saying. It’s the basis of the relationship. A mentor is someone who is further down the path. They are often older than you, but not always.
  2. Mentors teach you something. More than just experience, a mentor offers you wisdom and guidance. A mentor is someone who helps you navigate places you’ve haven’t been before in your life and career.
  3. Mentors are available. There are moments when you need guidance, and a mentor is someone you can turn to in those moments.  It usually comes in small doses — a few minutes here and there, and in seasons— a handful of conversations during a time when you need help with something specific.
  4. Mentors are invested in you. Finally, a mentor is someone who wants to see you succeed. She’s in your corner rooting for you.

I’ve Never Had a Mentor

Notice what’s not on the list: any sort of formalized relationship or close friend status—which is exactly how most people define a mentor.  There is nothing wrong with a formalized close relationship, but they’re incredibly rare and usually unnecessary. In fact, if that’s what you’re looking for in a mentor, you will miss most mentorship opportunities.

It would be easy for me to say that I’ve never had a mentor because I’ve never had this type of formal relationship. And that would be true. But it’s also true that if I expand my definition to include the list of characteristics above, I’ve had more mentors than I can count.

I want to invite you to expand the way you think about yourself, your life, and your mentors.

Instead of a mentor being a singular person who invests in you deeply, your mentors are all the people from whom you learn.

Instead of one relationship that is an inch wide and a mile deep, think about the many relationships that offer a mile of breadth, even though some may only be an inch deep.

In fact, having more mentors is more healthy than a just few. I have people in my life from whom I’d ask questions about business but not parenting, finances but not creativity, emotional health but not career-change, etc. No single person is an expert in all areas of life.

By having many mentors, you have the opportunity to play to their strengths. Instead of trying to find a mentor to be your one-and-only mentor, find people to learn from in smaller ways— which is much more realistic and manageable. In fact, you likely already have some mentors in place.

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Who are Your Mentors?

You can think about mentors in four categories:

  1. Mentors you know personally. This is the typical type of mentor— someone you can call on the phone, have coffee with, or ask for a few minutes from now and then. Some of the work of finding mentors is expanding your network to include more people that you know personally.
  2. Mentors you don’t know personally. This is the broadest definition of mentorship, but we shouldn’t ignore it. You can learn so much from people you haven’t met. There are some authors, bloggers, and podcasters who have shaped the way I think about the world and I’ve never met them.Who are the mentors you’ve never met?
  3. Mentors that you work for and with. Work is a great context for mentorship. You learn so much from someone when you’re working with and for them. I have a couple friends who use this idea to guide their career. At every junction, they ask, “Who is doing something interesting and how can I work with or for them?” I’ve learned so much about management and business operations from the bosses I’ve had (some more than others). When you spend 40 hours a week with someone, you have the chance to learn a lot from the people around you.
  4. Mentors that you pay. Yes. You can pay your mentors. In fact, if you’re trying to do something at a high level, you should pay your mentors.

In the photography world, this is well understood. Many established photographers offer “Mentor Sessions” and workshops where you can learn how they work and ask them questions. Similarly, top athletes pay their coaches. Business executives pay their consultants. Businesses pay their boards of directors.

It’s ok to pay for the guidance that you need. If it’s a coach, pay for a coach. If it’s a therapist, pay for a therapist. If it’s a class with an educator that you want to learn from, pay for that class. These people fit all of the requirements: they’re experienced, they can teach you, they’re available, they’re invested in your success (which is why you’re paying them).

Try this, search online for whatever it is that you’re trying to do and the world coach. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to shake you awake to what really matters, to help you find where meaning and life intersect, and to inspire you to push into those places. He writes about work worth doing and hosts a podcast, by the same name. You can find him anywhere on the internet by searching his name.