I recently read Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition by Brian J Mahan.  The book is based on a series of courses the author taught, first to undergraduates at the University of Colorado and subsequently to seminary students and high school seniors at Emory University.  The book seems geared mainly to achievement-oriented young adults. Mahan questions his students’ assumption that life should be lived by pursuing ambition and self-interest.  He encourages them to be receptive to vocation, which he describes at one point as an “interior consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons.”  He notes that, even among those who reject the idea that life can be centered on vocation, many have had “epiphanies of recruitment:” experiences which have drawn them outside themselves and invited them to live a different sort of life.  He takes these experiences as evidence of a “shadow government” of compassion and idealism found even within those who have banished all outward signs of such a regime.

I do not think of myself as an ambitious person.  I am not pursuing promotion or greater recognition in my job, I’m not trying to make a name for myself in professional circles, and, at this point of life, I don’t see myself as in competition with anyone.  However, Mahan has convinced me that there is much more ambition in all of us than we recognize.  Following William James, he points out that all self-seeking—even “spiritual self-seeking” is egoistic, and, as such, partakes in ambition.  He points out the strategies—such as self-justification, rationalization, and strategic inattention–we use to subjugate our shadow governments of vocation and compassion.  He notes our tendency to use invidious comparison in order to maintain a sense of self-worth.  I admit to all of these.

Mahan’s ideas aren’t new to me, but the examples he uses certainly enrich my understanding of how such mechanisms work.  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich provides an excellent case study of how striving for power and social recognition can lead to a life that is a lie but that, even as death nears, resists strenuously the dawning awareness of folly.  Nixon’s lawyer John Dean serves as a more contemporary example of lying to oneself in order to continue on a course aimed at achieving power and success.  Mahan also effectively describes a number of his childhood attempts to construct a sense of himself that is grander and more noble than what is warranted.  In the most memorable of these, he is entranced by an episode of Captain Midnight in which the good captain used a high-tech device that projected his image onto the clouds overhead so his companions could find him.  The device was offered for sale to the listening public; Mahan eagerly placed his order, but was of course disappointed in the outcome.  He reflects “I still try to project my image onto cloud banks,” but sees some progress in himself:  “Sometimes—a little more often than in the past—I simply watch the clouds as they pass by.”

Mahan recommends exercises from both Christian and Buddhist traditions to foster giving up the exaggerated self of ambition and strengthening the shadow government of compassion and service.  The two strategies he suggests the most are formative remembering and spiritual indirection. In the first, the reader is guided in selective recall of past experiences, both to better understand the nature of his or her self-strivings and to recollect epiphanies of recruitment.  To me, this approach seems to be a useful addition to what narrative psychologists write about constructing and revising one’s life story.   

Spiritual indirection, the second strategy Mahan recommends, consists of studying aspects of the self that interfere with living as one wishes, so that, having recognized them, it is possible to move past them.  Some of the exercises of spiritual indirection are derived from Walter Percy’s “self-help” book Lost in the Cosmos.  For example, Mahan quotes a passage in which Percy has his reader imagine that a neighbor had an incredible string of good fortune, to which the reader says, “Great, Charlie, I’m really happy for you.”  “Are you happy for him?” Percy asks, then goes on to suggest ways we might have liked to see Charlie’s good fortune diminished.    As with Percy, the understanding of the self Mahan presupposes seems permeated with Kierkegaard’s ideas.  In particular, they hearken to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book that explains with exquisite insight the dilemmas that result from seeking a self but being dissatisfied with whatever self we have.   The one fault I find in Mahan’s book is that he doesn’t acknowledge this debt to Kierkegaard or expand his ideas about the ambitious self using Kierkegaard’s concepts.  I do recommend the book as an excellent guide to self-examination and discovering vocation.