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."
Free to live his dream, Rudolph sent résumés to churches around the country. He knew he had to work hard because he did not have a strong musical background. But he'd never had a problem finding a job before, so he was confident it was only a matter of time before something would turn up.
"I didn't get a single response," Rudolph laughs. "After a couple of weeks I thought to myself, this isn't right. After that, I was scrambling to every website out there. I sent my résumé to anybody who was thinking of hiring a musician for any reason."
His money problems also amped up the urgency to find a job. Rudolph used his 401(k), savings and money from investments to cover his $5,000 in monthly expenses. During that time, he lost his home, most of his money and all of the expensive things he'd collected along the way. He kept the Jaguar, only because it was almost paid off.
Despite his financial woes, Rudolph refused to return to business. He says he was willing to do anything not to go back to his previous life.
In 2007, nearly a year after he left the mortgage industry, a small church in upstate New York offered him a job.
"They needed someone and it was what I needed to get started," Rudolph said of the opportunity. "After that it was easier to get another job because I had the backing of the church."
A year later, Rudolph accepted another job as choir director at Springfield Messiah United Methodist Church in Virginia. Since he joined the church, the music program has doubled in size, with 400 people in 14 ensembles. He's also putting his business savvy to good use. When the church's old organ died, he found a loaner and is currently raising money to buy a new $400,000 custom-built one from Europe.
The difference between his old life and his new one is dramatic.
"Now it drives me crazy that I have to be out of the building when everyone leaves," Rudolph said with a laugh. "It's just a really nice feeling to get up and welcome in the new day."
He still has some remnants of his past. He's working to pay off debts, and his beloved Jaguar now seems out of place outside his one-bedroom apartment, which is about the size of one room in his former home.
Instead of spending his vacation at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway, he shared a small place at the beach with five people and no air conditioning.
He does not keep in touch with anyone from his former career, and most people who know him now have no idea of the life he once lived. Of course, the Jaguar does raise the question of how a church musician can afford that type of car. But he tells people it's from a business he used to have, and leaves it at that.
"I actually give myself credit for making this transition," Rudolph says. "There is a good feeling about that. I would tell anyone not to settle. Don't stop, because the next move is not going to be any easier."
Latisha R. Gray is a freelance Web producer and writer based in Washington, D.C.