How Harter’s Competence Motivation Theory helps explain Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”

Christopher McCandless, famously known as Alexander Supertramp, or “Alex”, was only 24 when his remains were found in the Fairbanks City 142 bus outside of Alaska’s Denali National Park. Chris (pictured below) fell in love with the idea of self-actualization and freedom through nature thanks to authors like Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy. Chris spent time hitch-hiking around the United States seeking a deeper understanding of himself and forming genuine relationships along the way. Chris was described as a warm, intellectual, and caring individual by his family and those he connected with on his travels. From South Dakota, to Mexico, to Arizona, and San Diego, he lived simply on his adventure to the great northern unknown. Chris ultimately survived more than 100 days in the Alaskan wilderness, documenting his experiences along the way. McCandless’ story was brought to life in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”, and later made into a popular movie in 2007.

“Alexander Supertramp” pictured in front of the Fairbanks City bus 142 in 1992

What Krakauer identifies as the most compelling piece of McCandless’ story was a desire to live deliberately and to understand ourselves in a larger context (we’ll come back to this). Chris believed these answers were only available by spending time in nature. Chris possessed an unrelenting desire to let go of comfort and live in harmony with the world around him. Some considered his choices courageous, others naïve. Only the reader can decide for themselves if they believe Chris should be remembered as a soul seeker, a true naturalist, or a misguided and anxious youth. The real question then becomes, what motivated McCandless to live this way? A theory traditionally used in youth sport and exercise can help explain why.

Competence Motivation Theory

Chris McCandless was someone who had an unrelenting motivation to live in alignment with nature. After graduating from Emory College, he left home, changed his name, and adopted a singular goal on a path meant for self-realization. Testimonies from the McCandless family reinforce that Chris sought control in his life, drew confidence from previous experiences traveling, and was emotionally invested in everything he did. These reported behaviors support several key components of Harter’s (1978) Competence Motivation Theory.

Competence Motivation Theory is designed to explain the root and various sources of an individual’s motivation. In traditional sport and exercise applications, youth athletes may derive motivation after positive reinforcement from a parent, constructive feedback from a coach, or the ability to be independent/autonomous. These hypotheticals are all social contributions to three specific areas of Harter’s theory. An athlete’s competence, perception of control, and previous successes or failures, are each influenced by the social context of the situation. We can use a youth athlete practicing free-throws for this example. Let’s say our athlete shoots 80% from the line this season. We can argue that she has high competence, plenty of success to reference from, and a high perception of control. Conversely, if our athlete only shoots 40% from the free-throw line it’s easy to assume the opposite. In Chris McCandless’ situation, it isn’t as black and white. These three factors act as foundations to the underlying affect of an individual and their resulting motivation. Some athletes may find motivation from routine failure if they still believe they have a high perception of control and competence to perform a task. Sport and exercise psychologists can only debate the importance of each factor to explain the resulting motivation of an individual. In the case of McCandless, Competence Motivation Theory maps effectively to Krakauer’s narrative.

The last photo taken by McCandless documenting his experience in Alaska

“Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer is an inspiring and cautionary tale about the call of the wild. From an early age, McCandless was enamored by nature and restlessly motivated to live a life he chose for himself. Let’s explore where his motivation possibly originated.

When considering initial social contributions, Chris was described as having a poor relationship with his parents. His father, Walt, routinely criticized and negatively reinforced Chris’ efforts to travel and live freely. After Chris took a cross country road-trip, his father questioned his decision making and further strained the relationship between the pair. Although it was not a direct intention, this may have only emphasized Chris’ idea of independence. Again, we know that everyone draws motivation from these sources differently. So although the social context may not be positive, that might only push Chris further to accomplish his goals. Next, we look to understand Chris’ competence, his successes and failures, and his perception of control. Krakauer does his best to fairly highlight the criticisms of McCandless’ approach to living off the land in his writing. Many Alaskan natives and self-described naturalists wrote to Krakauer after the story was first published. People said McCandless must have had a death wish after failing to adequately prepare for a life in the wild. I will defer to those more experienced and agree with their assessments after reading “Into the Wild” and reinforce, Chris could have been more prepared. His previous experiences as a youth with his Uncle Travis in the woods don’t seem to constitute the blind faith McCandless had in himself throughout his journey. These successes may seem minor to the outside observer, but to Chris, we can only speculate they gave him the confidence to live off the land indefinitely. Finally, his perception of control. Growing up, Chris seemed to like things a certain way. He was self-assured in his methods and approach according to his sister Carine and moved headstrong in that direction. A potentially significant contribution to Chris’ lasting affect and resulting motivation. Based on Chris’ personal journal, photographs, and passing relationships he formed on his way to Alaska, one could argue Chris held a positive affect. He was not only excited to live in nature, but he felt like it was indeed his greater purpose. Can affect alone propel an individual’s motivation? It’s hard to say. What is certain is that Chris was described as a kind person with a positive disposition on life. Using Harter’s (1978) Competence Motivation Theory, we can begin to understand what may have motivated Chris to live a life untethered.

Like McCandless, I can personally understand the intoxicating desire of seeking answers in nature. It’s as if an understanding of self can only be achieved by letting go of everything else. I too have rushed off on solo trips into the woods, made brash decisions about relationships, and demanded answers when face to face with starry nights and expansive landscapes. All in an effort to discover a version of myself that exudes confidence and dismisses doubt upon my return. McCandless wasn’t interested in easy or comfortable. Unfortunately, he had this absolute belief in his ideals that lead to his death. As of writing this, I am 26 years old. And although I am still intrigued by thoughts of solitude that bring me deep into the woods of Maine or the mountains of Colorado, I believe there must be a balance.

For there are people who discover what was always close at hand only after a long and painful journey, and they remain under the impression that the most awkward road was the only road.

Alan Watts, “Become What You Are”

I’m not sure where my choices or career may take me but I don’t think that’s the point. I think what Chris discovered, the intention to “live deliberately”, is what I want to ultimately determine my motivation. I’m working on accepting things for how they are and in this process, I know that everything changes. I don’t have to fantasize about escaping to the wild, or rather living a happy life, to know that intentional choices may still one day bring me closer to this reality.

Published by Jacob Ames

Feline father, perpetual graduate student, sport enthusiast, pancake expert, and gratitude writer. Using this blog to keep my life organized and to develop a platform I can one day use to share baseless conspiracy theories about the robot uprising. I enjoy writing!

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