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Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition [Paperback]

by Brian J. Mahan, Robert Coles
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 8, 2002 0470621680 978-0470621684 1
In the wise and often witty Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, Brian Mahan considers the question of how it is possible to create a meaningful spiritual life while living in a culture that measures us by what we have rather than who we are. Drawing on nearly two decades of teaching experience. Brian Mahan shares stories of personal struggle and triumph that demonstrate how those who seek meaning and purpose have recalimed their authentic selves by resolving the inevitable tension between personal ambition and spiritual vibrancy.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Do we all have "shadow governments of compassion and idealism"? In this odd, sometimes disjointed but always engaging meditation on the relationship between vocation and ambition, Mahan answers yes. Referencing Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, William James, Walker Percy and Leo Tolstoy, Mahan muses rather than argues, and ends each chapter with assignments gleaned from the college courses he has taught on this topic. For example, at the end of one chapter, he invites readers to hold a national press conference at which they attempt to rationalize an episode in their lives when they engaged in repeated self-deception leading to serious moral compromise. Each chapter and assignment leads readers, in one way or another, to examine the tension between the lives they would live governed by compassion, in complete harmony with God's calling, entered into via "epiphanies of recruitment" and the socially scripted, ambition-driven lives they do live. Pleasantly surprising is Mahan's light touch: he never resorts to heavy-handed homilies about how bereft conventional lives are, but rather invites readers to observe themselves living such lives, and to do so nonjudgmentally, with equal parts good humor, discomfort, acceptance and motivation to change. While encouraging readers to attempt mystical and imaginative exercises, Mahan ultimately avoids prescription. On the contrary, he ends by suggesting that ambition and vocation are not mutually exclusive, and that God delights in any and all attempts that flawed, inevitably ambitious people make to live according to their ideals.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In a short book demanding a slow reading, Christian educator Brian Mahan challenges the American cult of success with its inevitable apotheosis of the triumphant self. Convening an improbable conclave of spiritual advisors--Christian devotionalists, psychological theorists, and modern novelists--Mahan invites readers to probe the origins and consequences of their personal ambitions. Again and again, our cravings for wealth and prominence betray our vulnerability to self-deception and alienation, as we rationalize choices that suppress our authentic impulses of benevolence and idealism. To help recover our suppressed aspirations, Mahan guides us through the tasks of "formative remembering" (What am I living for?) and "spiritual misdirection" (What is distracting me from my true aims?). Honest engagement with these tasks draws us into the paradox of deliberate self-forgetfulness and toward the joyous discovery of what Mahan calls vocation: the proper dedication of our unique talents to meeting the needs of others. A priceless book for readers whose march through success manuals has left them with only emptiness and cynicism. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (January 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470621680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470621684
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #385,378 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than Five Stars! May 2, 2002
This is a fantastic book, not so much because it tells you how to resolve the tension between ambition and vocation, but because it accompanies you on the journey of working through these preoccupations yourself. You will not find any "5 Easy Steps to Success" here nor will find any "How to Find God's Will For Your Life." Rather you will find a philosopher who walks with us the razor's edge between our desire to get ahead in this world and our desire to live a meaningful life. Mahan is not sanctimonious in his approach to this all-too-human struggle. He does not condemn or issue platitudes. Rather, he invites the reader into a introspective, somewhat guided, tour of his or her deepest convictions regarding both "mere success" and "true success."
In a sense, Mahan's book is an extended meditation on Thomas Merton's call, "If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the the thing I want to live for."
However, this is not an "easy read." In parts, it gets a bit dense. (I found myself reading certain passages several times to get at Mahan's point.) However, I do think it would be a great book for audiences as diverse as college students who are trying to figure out what to do with themselves, mid-career executives who are struggling to move form "success to significance," as well as anyone striving to find some order in their lives as they pursue both their ambitions as well as their vocations. Heck, this is a book for all "baby boomers" who at one time felt they had been called to "change the world" in the name of "love,peace and justice" only to find themselves becoming precisely what they, at one time, detested.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book on Vocation January 23, 2002
By A Customer
I absolutely adore this book. I've grown tired of books on vocation that have a "pie in the sky" approach to living a spiritual life, as if everyday working people have the financial resources to devote themselves to a life of good deeds. Brian Mahan has a great way of bringing two worlds together---the need to pay the bills and the need to make a positive contribution to the world. Turns out you can do both!
I also like his "spiritual retreat" approach. He incorporates spiritual exercises at the end of each chapter which really help to focus attention on living a life of integrity. Finally, this is a practical and inspiring book---but a book with a humorous edge---that unites compassion and ambition in a fresh, new way.
Read this book!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Selfless ambition October 30, 2004
This is no ordinary book.  As author Brian Mahan says his in preface, `reading this book is not a spectator sport.'  In many ways, this is just like life - we have to get into the mix (or, to take another example from Mahan's introduction, join in the dance) for it to become meaningful, worthwhile, and all the other positive words one would normally insert here.  This is a book that invites active engagement.  Mahan does not argue so much as persuade, and even then, it is more of a presentation than a direction. 


Mahan developed this book out of a course he taught at the University of Colorado, and later Emory's seminary and high school advancement programme - the course has always been popular, Mahan states, but it isn't always clear why.  Mahan attaches some of the popularity to the presence of the word `ambition' in the course title (which is also part of the subtitle of this book) - the focus of the world is often on success, and rising high school and college students are often ambitious in various ways.  However, it is not the kind of political/corporate ambition, or the kinds of ambitions that make soap operas interesting to watch sometimes, that Mahan develops here (although these types are not disconnected from what Mahan writes).  Mahan is looking more directly at the ambition toward self and self-fulfillment. 


Mahan develops ideas of paradox throughout the text.  How can we honestly pursue self-abandonment if the very pursuit shows an attachment to self?  When can success end up being a failure, and how is failure often a success?  Mahan uses personal stories and experiences as well as the tales of those around him to illustrate the various points - he also draws on history, sometimes the lesser known bits.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars life-changing June 20, 2008
I first read this book in 2002 and have reread it several times. I have also bought copies to give away- something I never do! I affirm all the great reviews that have been written and I would not even need to write another, but for the one angry one. Not that other opinions are impossible- but this level of disgust seems out of proportion. By reading the editorial reviews- which give a fine idea of the type of literary/conversational book this is-and using the "look inside the book" function- there is no need to make this kind of mistake. Likewise, why would someone spend four hours on a book they don't care for? (And if you zip through this book in one sitting you have failed to follow some of the experiential suggestions.)
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very challenging read September 15, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am on my second time through this challenging book. It is beginning to sink in, but I will have to let you know if the content will
be helpful to me. Help!
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