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‘It’s a pretty fast hamster wheel’: Stepping away from DC’s work-obsessed culture

The Capitol Building, Washington D.C.

A rising star in Washington, Luke Russert left a prominent career as a NBC correspondent and fill-in anchor back in 2016 and didn’t look back.

The son of the late Tim Russert, a television news legend, gave up what many eager and hard-charging young worker seek in the nation’s capital: Prominence and power.

“I don’t regret that decision at all,” Russert said. “I think it was one of the most consequential ones I’ve ever made in my life, and probably one of the best ones.”

After leaving NBC, Russert went on to visit six continents and more than 67 countries, a journey that is the subject of his New York Times best-selling book “Look For Me There.” In an interview with the DMV Download podcast, Russert said his decision to step away from D.C. shocked many — even himself.

“It was unexpected for a lot of people,” Russert said. “I was on an upward trajectory, and I think for a lot of folks, especially because of the my lineage, there’s this idea of, ‘Oh, well, this is what Luke will do. That’s the Russert name.'”

For a while, Russert had no problem with this because he liked his job in the District covering politics, elections and Congress.

“It’s something which, as a young man, I really gravitated to, especially on Capitol Hill, I was a history major in college,” Russert said. “And I loved being in the Capitol every single day, because I had a front row seat to the history.”

But as the years went on, it began to wear on him.

“There is such a, the term is interconnectedness, and a sense that you’re never really fully untethered from a smartphone or from the responsibilities of a job,” Russert said.

It’s an environment that made it hard to stop, think and reflect on his life, according to the author.

“At some point, you have to say, alright, this is a pretty fast hamster wheel,” Russert said. “Is it one that I want to stay on? And am I doing it for the right reason? And I think Washington is subject to more of those types of questions, perhaps from it’s working population, than other cities.”

The nation’s capitol is the fifth-hardest working city in the country, according to a recent WalletHub study. The main variable in the study is number of hours worked per week. Its labor force is also made up of eager, younger and sometimes unpaid workers.

“D.C., more so than most cities, really operates on the backs of kids in their 20s, and young people in their 30s,” Russert said. “Part of that is because of the pay structure on Capitol Hill. Part of that is you need that energy in order to be in those federal types of jobs and positions.”

Russert said this combination of constant work and the distractions of modern technology let him avoid and ignore the existential weight of young adulthood, along with the most important parts of his life.

“I was running away from the grief of losing my father,” Russert said. “I never did it as a young man in my early 20s. Part of the reason why is, I thought if I did focus on that grief, then I would have to acknowledge that he was really gone. I do think what a lot of young men do is store and ignore, which is much easier than having to admit to being vulnerable and working through things that are uncomfortable. It’s easier to throw yourself into work.”

As Russert writes in his book, traveling around the world has allowed him to reflect, grieve his father and find himself. But now that he’s returned from his many trips, he said you don’t need a plane ticket to reach peace.

“I’m incredibly privileged to be able to travel the way I did — I understand that,” Russert said. “But I think one of the things that is universal is making that time for yourself. Whether it’s walking in the woods for one hour without your phone, there’s just such a benefit to that. I don’t think we push ourselves in that direction enough.”

Moreover, Russert said there’s an actual cultural aversion to getting off your phone.

“If I don’t text you back in five minutes, it’s not because I was kidnapped,” Russert said, now that he’s back from his travels. “It’s just like, I’m trying to meditate here for a second. Relax!”

In his book, Russert calls himself an “ex-journalist.” He told WTOP that he’s not entirely sure what he’ll do next, but he wants to keep telling stories.

“I learned traveling the world, we seem to contextualize things in black and white,” Russert said. “I think the world really lives in the gray. There’s a lot of nuance there. So I want to tell this nuance stories, whether it’s writing another book, whether it’s podcasts, documentary, film, something in that space.”