From Subject to Object

A fundamental goal of ontological coaching is to help the coachee generate an ontological shift. Through work with a coach, the coachee gains a new perspective on how they view the world, and holding that perspective, they can examine and shift it as needed to serve themselves better.

We sometimes refer to this as “The Big Eye.” We step outside of our current reality, taking The Big Eye’s perspective, allowing us to examine our situation objectively. Robert Kegan, Ken Wilber, and others describe this shift as moving from subject to object. Today, we will explore this powerful tool to shift your awareness.

Understanding Subject-Object Theory

wrote a few weeks ago about Kegan’s adult development theory. His subject-object theory provides a tool to help us accelerate our movement from one stage to the next.

Early in a developmental stage, we are the subject of our immediate experience, and we do not spend much time (if any) reflecting on that experience. Kegan calls this the subject-in-experience stage. We are our experiences.

Over time, we began to observe our experience and reflect upon it. As this happens, a separation appears between the immediate experience and our observation of that experience. In ontological coaching, this separation is what we call The Big Eye. Kegan calls this the subject-on-object stage. I’ll share my favorite metaphor to help illustrate this theory.

Consider a tadpole in a pond. From the moment the tadpole hatched from its egg, it swims around in the pond, and the water of the pond is that tadpole’s experience. The tadpole has no understanding or awareness of water because water is always present in its immediate experience. Relative to water, this tadpole is subject-in-experience.

Eventually, the tadpole grows legs and becomes a frog. At some point, this frog pokes its head above the water’s surface for the first time. The frog obtains The Big Eye, looking down at the water’s surface from above. The frog moves from being a subject of the water, with no awareness, to viewing water as an object. It recognizes that water is a thing that can be observed, and there are experiences where water is not present. The frog has moved from subject to object. It has experienced an ontological shift, changing its view of reality forever.

Let’s explore how we can leverage subject-object theory in our human experiences to shift our perspective and accelerate our growth.

The Socialized Mind

While our tadpole/frog experiences an immediate shift from subject to object, our human development typically occurs more gradually. Consider Kegan’s Socialized Mind stage of development – the most common stage for adults. At this stage, individuals primarily rely on external authorities and norms to shape their beliefs and behaviors. People at this stage are more concerned with fitting in and being accepted by others. They are also more likely to be influenced by social norms and expectations.

Early in this stage, we may not even be aware we are making decisions based on the approval of others:

  • We choose to attend a college because our friends are going there or our parents encouraged us to do so.
  • We choose to pursue a profession because our culture places value on that profession without considering whether we will enjoy or be good at it.
  • Although we feel an internal desire to stay home and read, we go to a party anyway because we have FOMO (fear of missing out) or because our friends will be there, and we unconsciously choose to do what our friends do.

These are just a few examples. If you reflect upon this stage, you will find countless more. It’s that exercise that helps to spur movement to the next stage of development. As our social relationships move from subject-in-experience, where we may not even be aware of their impact, to subject-on-object, where we consciously observe and reflect upon them, the shift begins to occur.

  • We recognize we are considering a college not because of what is important to us but what is important to others.
  • We realize other professions are better suited to our strengths. We begin to care more about the profession that matters to us and less about how others view it.
  • We examine our desire to stay home and read, compare it to our FOMO, and reach a different conclusion about how we want to spend our Saturday night.

My Recent Subject-Object Shift

To further illustrate, I’ll share a recent experience of my own. I wrote recently about The Golden Mean as it related to my running. In that post, you can see the beginning of my shift from subject to object regarding my training. That shift has continued.

My love of distance running, combined with my love of setting and achieving ambitious goals, put me on the path of an elite athlete. I qualified for the Boston Marathon. I subsequently ran Boston. I ran Chicago. I set a goal to run all six world major marathons. As I got faster, I set an incredibly ambitious goal to run a marathon in under three hours. This was my #1 hobby, and I had detailed plans to maximize my training in attaining these goals.

In so doing, my identity as someone training to run a sub-3-hour marathon became transparent. It was like water to the tadpole. I executed and refined my plans with discipline because that’s what an elite athlete would do. There was little reflection or awareness. There was laser focus and disciplined execution.

Then, I hit a wall in a long run and experienced burnout. I was the frog dipping its head above the surface of the water. Suddenly, The Big Eye appeared, and everything I was doing to train moved from subject to object. This shift accelerated when I realized my feet hurt even after I reduced my mileage. Three weeks ago, I stopped running entirely, taking a break until I could see a podiatrist.*

When we can shift from subject to object and bring The Big Eye in, we open the door to all kinds of reflection. Here are a few related to my running identity:

  • Why do I run? I worked with a running coach over a decade ago, and she asked me about my running goals. My top goal was “To be able to run for the rest of my life.” It still is. That goal is in conflict with attempting to run a sub-3-hour marathon.
  • I have a series of daily exercises as part of my training regimen. I’ve viewed each one through a new set of eyes. Is this relevant if I run to maintain physical and mental health?
  • What is a healthy weight? There is a 5-10 pound difference between my desired racing weight and a healthy maintenance weight. This has changed how I view my daily nutrition and mindset when I step on the scale.
  • What is life like without running? I had the opportunity to experience this firsthand as I went two weeks with no running whatsoever. I experienced frustration with other forms of exercise. I yearned to be running outside in the open air.

This is a small sampling of what I have observed. I’ve taken my running identity, placed it in front of The Big Eye, and examined it in every way possible. In the process, my identity as a runner is evolving, hopefully for the better.

Putting It Into Practice

Are you ready to move from subject to object?

  • Choose an aspect of your life that deserves to be pulled into your awareness.
  • Recognize how this item has been transparent to you, like water to a tadpole.
  • Separate yourself and your thinking from the item. Poke your head above the surface of the water. Look at this item with your Big Eye.
  • What does it look like?
  • Feel like?
  • Taste like?
  • Smell like?
  • How does this item make you feel?
  • How would you feel without this item?
  • How would you like to shift your perspective about this item?

Bookmark this post. When it’s time to engage your Big Eye, this can help you do so.


I am an Executive Coach and Life Coach with software executive roots in Higher Ed and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

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* Good news – I saw the podiatrist last week. My situation is not dire, and physical therapy can correct it. With the help of a few cortisone shots, I began running again this week.