Practicing the Fundamentals: The Subject-Object Shift

adult development

What do streamline, color theory, anatomy, and arpeggios have in common?

If you guessed “fundamentals,” you get a gold star. Streamline is fundamental to competitive swimming. Color theory is fundamental to art, anatomy to medicine, and arpeggios to music.

Fundamentals are the foundational skills upon which mastery is built, and they never become obsolete.

Elite performers know this. Michael Phelps did not stop practicing his streamline after winning his eighteenth Olympic gold in London. He went on to win five more in Rio. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello performances have earned him nineteen Grammys (so far). He still practices basic scales and arpeggios.

If you aspire to be an accomplished cellist, you practice scales and other fundamentals... forever. If you aspire to be a better leader, a better co-worker, partner, parent, or friend, you practice personal growth and development... forever. As scales are to music, an essential skill you must master to sustain a lifetime of growth is what we call the subject-object shift.

If you want to thrive in this complex world, the subject-object shift is fundamental. So what is it?

In language, root words are fundamental to understanding, so let’s start there, with the roots of the words themselves. The prefix sub in subject means "under." Ob means "toward" or "against," and ject means “throw.”

When we inject, eject, project, reject, or interject, we “throw in,” “throw out,” “throw forward,” “throw back,” and “throw between.” Likewise, a sub-ject is that which is “thrown under,” and the ob-ject is that which is “thrown against.”

When we are subject to something—our perspectives, our emotions, beliefs, biases, predispositions, groups, families, political parties, religion, culture, or ethnicity—we don’t have it. It has us. We are the fish that does not understand what water is. We are “thrown under," immersed. Subjectivity is the rose-colored glasses you don’t know you’re wearing.

When you are subject to your own emotions, for example, you cannot see them because you are seeing through them. You have been “thrown under” your emotions and you are throwing them against the world.

When you lose your temper, you have no ability to pause and say, “I’m feeling angry.” That subjectivity might last only a second before you regain your composure, but in that moment there is no distance between you and your anger. You will act out your anger, because in that moment you are your anger. This is why we say that you have lost your objectivity. Only when you can hold the emotion as an object, when you can observe the anger from some psychological distance, are you free to make new choices.

This presents a catch-22; if we cannot see that which we are subject to, how can we know that we are in need of a shift?

Fortunately life gives us clues. These clues are called problems.

Persistent problems are often signs that a subject-object shift is needed. This is why we often grow the most through a crisis. The divorce, the bankruptcy, the dreaded Performance Improvement Plan, the spike in employee turnover, or the cancer scare might leave us with painful scars, but these events also create powerful opportunities to stop and reevaluate, if we are willing to do so. We often emerge from a crisis with new, bigger, and better perspectives on the other side. A subject-object shift occurs.

Thankfully it is not always that dramatic. A problem need not escalate to crisis level to point us in the right direction. Any time you find yourself confused, frustrated, and stuck, solutions often lie on the other side of a subject-object shift.

Copernicus was frustrated and confused by an inability to accurately predict planetary predictions. He, along with almost everyone else, was subject to the fact that he was standing on a big rotating ball orbiting the sun. From that vantage point, the problem was unsolvable. But once old Nicolaus shifted to a larger view, holding the entire solar system as object with the sun, not the earth, at the center, everything made sense. The previously impossible became obvious. Subject-object shifts can do that.

Sometimes subject-object shifts are sudden and permanent. Once you see, you cannot unsee. New understanding supplants old, and an enduring shift occurs. One and done.

Yet often the shift occurs over time, oozing back and forth between moments of objectivity and returns to subjectivity until eventually (hopefully) you pop permanently outside your subjective view and the new perspective becomes stable.

Consider the following: You might catch yourself saying, “I am an introvert. That’s just how I am.” If we look closely, that is actually a rather strange thing to say. The ability to name your introversion indicates that you already have some objectivity, otherwise you could not come up with that sentence. You are able to observe “introvert” as distinct from “extravert.” This is progress, but in the next breath you are declaring yourself subject to it. “That’s just how I am,” is choosing to be ruled when you could be the ruler. You have seen the cell bars through the darkness, but you are not yet free.

Note that every objective view is subject to some larger view, expanding ever outward like concentric rings. Life’s endless changes will always place new demands on us. We must continually move subjective experience into objective understanding to meet those new demands. There is no end. Ever. So let’s get going!

Now that you know what to look for, how do we make a subject-object shift?

Growth requires that we engage openly with life and its many problems. Here are six possibilities, by no means an exhaustive list, with examples:

  1. Challenge your assumptions. Your business isn’t big enough to hire top talent. That assumes that top talent demands the highest salaries. Is that really true? You might even commit a little heresy. Maybe the earth is not the center of the universe after all.
  2. Look for systems. Local optimization occurs when employees are subject to their own role, department, or division, losing sight of the needs of the bigger system. Local optimization is a path to ruin. When the Purchasing Department is incentivized to avoid stock-outs, they are likely to warehouse more inventory, which is at odds with the Finance Department’s incentive to improve cash flow. If either department “wins,” the organization suffers. It is the system we must optimize, but we cannot optimize it if we cannot see it.
  3. Learn new distinctions. Learning all the dimensions of emotional intelligence gives you new distinctions. You cannot be objective about your Reality Testing, for example, if you don’t know what Reality Testing is. Distinguishing the various aspects of emotional intelligence gives you a much more nuanced view. New distinctions and new language enable you to see that which you could not see.
  4. Look in the mirror. The next time you have a disagreement with your boss, spouse, partner, or coworker, ask yourself what role you played, even if they were clearly in the wrong (and I’m sure they were...). Can you shift yourself to a position from which you can see how you contributed to the situation? (You are part of the system, after all).
  5. Seek new experiences. Travel. Interact with new people. Experience nature. Expose yourself to new ideas, especially ideas that make you uncomfortable. Mark Twain wrote, Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”* This is true precisely because the new experiences of travel force us to reexamine our beliefs, instead of remaining subject to them, "vegetating in one little corner."
  6. Get a coach who understands adult development theory and the fundamental nature of the subject-object shift. Yes, that’s self-serving, but it is also true! This journey is not for the faint of heart. Don’t go it alone. Start here.

The subject-object shift is how we make sense of ever more complex challenges.

What does such a shift feel like? Often it results in a sense of tremendous relief. Confusion is replaced with clarity. Complication resolves into simplicity. Stagnation gives way to flow. It requires that we let go of our existing, hard-earned, yet incomplete paradigm, which can be scary.

The subject-object shift asks us to unravel, at least partially, the comfortable fabric of our comprehension in order to weave a more complex pattern. This can be daunting, but we think it is worth it. In fact, we think it is fundamental learning and growth. It is, after all, the meaning of our name, Retexo, to "un-weave." That was not an accident. :-)

Until next week,

Greg and Martha


* Unlike most quotes on the internet, this one really is attributable to Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens, from his 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from Retexo.


Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

Privacy PolicyTerms

Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

Privacy PolicyTerms