by Lizzy Hazeltine ’11

I measure my life in 4,000 mile increments, almost by accident.

I logged my first 4,000 miles during my independent research summer, driving to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I had bitten off more than I realized. If fortune and hospitality didn’t favor the bold and foolhardy, I would have fallen on my face even harder than I did.

And in every sense, I did fall on my face. Not only was it too early in the season to find reliable camping, but the nebulous connection between the great-great-great grandchildren of Scottish migrants and the windswept Western Isles I traveled to observe also failed to materialize.

lh-2Yes, to answer the question hanging in the air: I had driven for three straight days to ask Cape Bretoners how the history of Scottish immigration to eastern Canada had created a big, squishy, Romantic feeling of belonging between them and people living on similarly rural islands with active local newspapers in Scotland. I only needed 12 hours on Cape Breton to confirm precisely how off-base I was.

Lucky for me, the self-same people gently schooled me in the reality of their lives.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised my real research question eluded me after my original curiosity hit a brick wall. There I was, trying to understand about how identity, community, and local media fit together, with weeks ahead of me to invest in a new approach. At first by necessity, I put aside my thoughts about “right answers” in favor of accepting the insights the interviews offered. It’s what anthropologists call “indigenous meanings.”

Gradually, I learned to realign my ideas with the knowledge shared with me.

I’d failed because I assumed that I understood somewhere where I wasn’t, and something to which I didn’t belong. In their generosity, the people I met showed me what it is to be there without my misplaced preconceptions. That proved to be my second chance.

lh-1What my month of interviews showed me was deeper, but distinct from what I’d come there to prove. Scottish ancestors were nice, but so much less relevant than the present. The people I met cared about young people learning Gaelic, opening pubs that were as much for them as the tourists speeding through town, whether their local weekly paper could keep printing, and how a post-industrial province would make its way forward. What I found was more interesting and complex that what I’d brought with me in my own head.

A solid month of listening will teach a body how to be still, to ask better questions, and the value of showing up, even if you show up ignorant, but eager to actually understand.

lh-3Fast forward to early August 2016. I clocked another 4,000 miles during one of my weekly pilgrimages to Greensboro. I’d spent a year cultivating relationships there as part of a bigger plan to understand and then connect North Carolina’s entrepreneurial communities. Each week, I pointed myself west from the Triangle with a generous cup of coffee and a day as unsullied by my own expectations as I could manage. And each week, after another day in that post-industrial town forging a new path, I learned a little more about who’s doing what and why. Just like I did in Canada.

Less than an hour from my home in Durham, I still relied on locals’ understanding of their own town, and reminding myself that being there and being open are the only surefire ways to avoid the distractions in my own head. The pattern repeats itself. I think of the rainy Tuesday I didn’t have any meetings planned, but showed up anyway, landing in a conference that convened all of the people whom I needed to meet.  I think of how sharing what I was up to at the Morehead-Cain Alumni Forum led to a key introduction that cascaded into a series of conversations with entrepreneurs and community leaders that are still reverberating in my work.

lh-4Before I started this chapter, I knew that there were people engaged in the kind of rabble-rousing that makes starting new things possible, though I stopped myself short of thinking I could say much more. What I’ve learned after a year is how fervently Greensboro wants to retain the 40,000 college graduates they produce each year, foster opportunities brewing at a maker space in the formerly ignored South End, and capitalize on the evolution of the biggest textile and manufacturing companies.

More than 24,000 miles ago, I didn’t know that everything I learned from qualitative-as-heck anthropological research in Cape Breton would inform my as-then unknown future in the for-profit world of private companies. From a positive disposition to the unexpected to the twin blessings of excellent tacos and unending caffeine, the parallels are uncanny.

But I’ll take them for the hard-won lessons they resurface.

Since graduating with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2011, Lizzy Hazeltine successfully avoided using her degree in any direct sense until this year by mentoring and developing entrepreneurs inside universities and through her most recent work as a venture capitalist. She’s off on her next 4,000 miles as we speak.