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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 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.
The book includes a number of wonderful "practices" reminiscent of Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos."
I encourage anyone who asks how to live a meaningful life in a world that forevers seeks to drain us of life to read this book.
I would give it more stars but Amazon only allows five.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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.  For example, to highlight the failure of success, Mahan draws upon the curious dinner between film star Rudolph Valentino and curmudgeonly writer H.L. Mencken - Mencken was ostensibly consulted on how to deal with the press, but figured out later that what Valentino really sought was validation and direction in how to turn his failure of a successful career into something with true meaning.


This is perhaps the heart of Mahan's text as a whole - the search for meaning in life.  What is point of success if it has no meaning?  Meaning requires more than simple (or even elaborate) gratifications of the ego, the flesh, the persona.  It requires an honest appraisal of who we are as individuals, how we relate and fit in to our communities (large and small), and how our lives are responding to the vocations, the `higher callings' if you will, that have been given to us. 


Mahan is a Roman Catholic layperson, so many of his stories draw from this tradition.  However, Mahan's text is drawn broadly enough to incorporate people from all faith traditions, or those with no particular tradition or affiliation.  Mahan's story about sneaking into heaven is a good example - as a child, Mahan had experiences with a particular convent in Boston, and he felt in many ways he found a way to commune with God there that was if not directly at odds with the officially line, at least in some ways apart from how one, as a good Catholic, would get into heaven.  Mahan's image of God being one who does not just stand among the alabaster and marble statues, but also works in the kitchen (where `you could have cooked maybe a hundred turkeys at once and the mashed potatoes to go with them').and welcomes even the not-quite-so-good children in the back door. 


Each of the chapters comes with suggested practices (remember, Mahan is a teacher!).  These are spiritual practices that can be deceptively easy.  They are truly worth engaging in long-term and introspective ways.  They are practices that may come forward again and again, and do not constitute a set of `been-there, done-that, moving-on' kinds of activities to simply get through.  The reader who takes the time to engage herself or himself fully in these practices will find a transformation taking place. 


One of the key differences between ambition in the more worldly sense and the type of vocation and ambition that Mahan discusses is the connection to others.  Mahan quotes James Fowler's summary of vocation, including the observation that those in vocation are `augmented by others' talents' rather than finding them a threat or competition (often the case in politics and corporate models of ambition).  We also see our limitations as important as, if not more important than, our gifts and strengths. 


Mahan writes about the differences between occupation and preoccupation, saying that vocational awareness has more to do with the latter.  Fitting into a life of our true vocation requires awareness of who we really are, as opposed to what it is we are doing.  We also need to be flexible and allow for change (something often more easily done in our preoccupations than our formal occupations). 


The spirituality of Merton is very present; the spiritual sense that infuses many religions is on every page. This is a great book for the seeker, those longing for direction, and those who want more out of life in the most meaningful of ways.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2002
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 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
on August 31, 2014
So far so good.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2013
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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