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Thriving On Challenge: Jan Feddersen
Montana Senior News, February/March 2014
According to Missoula’s Jan Feddersen, people can be classified into two categories: thrill seekers and those who prefer “a more predictable life.” Undoubtedly, Jan belongs to the former faction.  How else would you describe someone who stepped off a 300-foot-high railroad bridge tethered by the ankle to a bungee cord that bounced her skyward five times before landing her ten heart-stopping feet above a river?

“Would I do it again?” asks Jan, whose diverse work experiences include being a keynote speaker for NASA and driving red jammer buses in Glacier Park. “Yes, if someone else paid my expenses and brought me back to middle-of-nowhere New Zealand.”

Although happy to repeat the experience, Jan admits it took ten agonizing minutes to coax her feet to abandon terra firma. At the time, she was touring New Zealand for three weeks astride a BMW with 17 other motorcyclists who discovered the bungee-jumping site on a helicopter ride above the mountains.

“When I looked over the edge of the bridge, I was frozen with fear. But then my ego took over,” recalls Jan. “I knew I would rather die than suffer the humiliation of not jumping. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well have the time of my life doing it. The important part of the story, though, is what happens when you step into what you are afraid of—the fear dissipates. You have to stop letting fear be your prison and rely on confidence 100 percent.”

While the bungee-jumping episode taught Jan a lot about her ability to face fear, it was another experience with an organization called Leading Concepts that she feels changed her life. A close friend, who had been her business mentor, recommended she participate in one of their four-day Kentucky camping adventures. Since she trusted her friend’s judgment, Jan asked no questions before buying her plane ticket. He promised she would have a good time. She believed him.

“After I landed, a van picked me up and drove four hours’ away into serious hills. Our destination looked like a stark military outpost with army tents and cots,” recollects Jan.
In a scene reminiscent of Goldie Hawn’s film Private Benjamin, Jan puzzled over the absence of all the expected comfort. Then she met the rest of the “vacationers” and was more baffled than ever.

“There were 14 firemen in their 30’s from New Jersey—all muscle, in rock-solid condition. And then there’s me, in my 60’s and out of shape. We kept looking at each other and wondering why we were there. They thought I was the help,” says Jan, who along with the others was handed camouflage clothing to wear, and told to line up for a hike the next morning.

“Due to the pace I lagged behind so the leader stopped us. Then he put me in front. When I explained I would slow down the group, he said, ‘everyone is going to learn to work as a team.’ The firemen were not happy,” remembers Jan. “It was testosterone versus I’ll be lucky to get to the top. I’m huffing and puffing and could feel them thinking, ‘Will you get your butt up this mountain.’ At the top, I fall down. They aren’t even breathing hard. They’re just looking at me as if to say, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’”

Before long, surprise paint-ball attacks from unknown marauders and requisite night patrols at 2 a.m. clarified the picture. They were engaged in a pseudo-military training program with simulated “missions.” To her chagrin, Jan was the proverbial outsider—the bumbler who hampered the macho-men from handily accomplishing tasks and outwitting unpredictable enemies. The situation looked bleak for her until one memorable evening when the leaders brought everyone into a tent saying, “We want you to talk to each other about your experience here and become a team.”

“After a couple of hours since no one was speaking, I said, They want us to learn something or we’ll be here all night. What’s the reason you think we were brought here?” Given her successful management careers with Xerox and Coors, Jan was well qualified to take a leadership role and encourage the obstinate participants to start talking.

“About midnight one person piped up, ‘We can’t go to bed till we’re a team and a team means everyone in the room, including Jan.’ We all started laughing,” she remembers.
With the conversational ice broken, people began sharing their expectations and resentments during their mutual days of hardships and worked through their differences. By 1:30 that night, a team had finally been forged.

Five hours’ later, they again lined up to hike the same mountain and Jan was again placed in the lead. This time, however, instead of feeling the firemen’s frustrations, she sensed only their respect and care. Although not in better condition than when she arrived, Jan practically ran up that mountain propelled by the group’s synergy.

“With every job I’ve held, I’ve had to challenge myself and take risks. This experience was no different. I’ve always believed I could achieve whatever I was asked to do,” she says. “The alternative is not to challenge yourself and become a vegetable. It’s the difference between telling yourself ‘you can’t’ versus ‘you can.’ For me, ‘you can’ means freedom.”