Robert Rudolph is a happy man.
It's evident in his laugh, his optimistic outlook on life, and just about everything he does. His secret: leaving his career, losing his 5,000-square-foot Atlanta home and never looking back.
Rudolph, now 53, was a mortgage broker in 2006 when the housing market began to crash. His income dropped from six figures to about $10,000 a year in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
"One day when yet another mortgage that had taken months to put together fell through, I walked into the office and said, 'I'm done,' " Rudolph recalls.
That moment changed his life.
He suddenly felt free to pursue his goal of becoming a church musician. It had been a lifelong dream: As a young man, he had put himself through seminary and got a master's degree in music. But his father, a businessman who retired in his 40s, had always stressed getting a job that would pay well enough to allow him to retire early. So Rudolph ditched his true passion and entered the world of business.
After 12 years as a manager at Macy's, he finally settled on a career as a mortgage broker. Money and success came fast as the housing market boomed. In 2004, Rudolph purchased a massive home and a Jaguar and was on track to retire at 55. But no one knew the turmoil brewing inside him.
"I was dying," Rudolph says. "What kept me motivated was the income and the idea of retiring early."
When the deals started falling through, Rudolph took it hard: He suffered two panic attacks and was rushed to the emergency room. He began isolating himself from friends because he couldn't afford to keep up his lavish lifestyle, and he felt like a disappointment.
At the end of each day, Rudolph recalls, "the only thing I had to look forward to was the heartache I was experiencing. I didn't want to do it again. I didn't know how to get around that."
At the same time, Rudolph's father developed Alzheimer's. Growing up, Rudolph says he was not as close to his father as he would have liked. He says the timing of his dad's illness proved to be a blessing in disguise.
"It just seemed like I didn't have to justify this anymore," Rudolph said of living up to his father's expectations. "Dads can have a heavy influence; as old as I am, it was still there."