Life begins as a guided tour. Your parents plan the route, calling on friends, family, teachers, football coaches and dance instructors to take turns at the wheel. Then you turn 18, leave school, and find yourself unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road. You’re given a roadmap; it has infinite directions. Where to next? First things first, you had better learn to drive.
Your early 20s are where you can make your name, or your namesake. You can travel the world over or feel over the world. You can love what you do, or have no idea what you’re doing. With the pressure to not only make decisions but also make the right ones, life choices in your early twenties are necessary but daunting. They lay the groundwork for the direction you set out on.
Whatever path 23-year-old Matthew Goodall chooses to take, he plans to travel along it in a minivan. “I want to get rid of my home, literally,” he says. “The home [of] all of my habits and things that I’m drawn to, all the things that I need.”
Two months ago Goodall sold his car and bought a van. He’s only taking what he can fit inside, and leaving the home he currently shares with his mum overlooking the ocean in Perth’s northern suburb of Marmion. Down by the back of his mum’s garden Goodall sits on a couch in an outdoor living room scattered with the remnants of his life: a small pile of laundry, an unmade bed, a world map on the wall covered in pins. As he speaks, his eyes sharpen into deep focus, alert and awake.
“I’ve worked out what I want and what I don’t want in my life, to a large extent,” he says. “The only way to, say, appreciate having a house, and a family, and things like that is to remove those things from my life and see how I go.
“The best way for me to learn [what I want] would be to put myself in something that I can manage, which is just a van.”
Goodall finished high school in 2012, spending the next six years working casual jobs and attempting a university degree. Get money or get smart – the kinds of pathways young people his age are expected to take. But these pathways are not for everyone.
The Grattan Institute reports that nearly 250,000 students began a university course in 2018, but more than 50,000 of them will leave without a degree to their names.
With university off the table for now, Goodall is parked at a fork in the road: what do you do when you realise nothing you’ve tried is really for you? One thing to do is condense your life into a box on wheels, and travel the country.
Goodall’s decision is born from his desperation to dramatically change the course of his life, but from someone else’s point of view, travelling away in a van could seem as though he’s escaping responsibility. “‘Am I doing that?’ I really tried to ask myself, and no.” He’s emphatic. “Right now a van and me, travelling, I can wrap my head around that,” he says. “I think I can grow from that starting point.”
In his van and on the open road, whatever choices he makes will be his own. Lost for direction and in need of guidance, going it alone isn’t everyone’s approach to their early twenties. Headspace clinical practice senior advisor Nick Duigan says the number of pathways on offer after high school can leave some young adults standing still. “It’s common for people to come to Headspace when they’re in search of meaning and purpose,” he says.
“It’s almost like the more options there are, the more paralysing it might feel. It’s not uncommon for people to get caught up in their head ruminating, going round and round in circles … then not actually leaving themselves in a place where they can make a decision.”
For Goodall, it’s the burdens of life disguised as comfort he believes are weighing him down, and breeding complacency in his life. With too many options and too many paths to travel, that paralysing feeling is what Goodall hopes to shake while living in his van on the open road. “Everything that keeps me going is set, and so it’s just, ‘What do you want from there’?” Goodall says. “It’s a privilege to think like that, but it can lead you to some pretty dark places.”
Decisions that change your life’s course can require leaping into the darkness without a safety net should you fall. For 21-year-old Nadia Behrouz, her leap of faith led her to higher ground, away from an environment she no longer wanted to be in. “I think that I’m a people person, so I thought nursing would suit me,” she says.
Behrouz finished high school and went straight into university, graduating from Notre Dame in 2017 as a registered nurse. She was offered a graduate position at a local hospital, but not everyone in her course had the same opportunity. “There were so many people that didn’t get one,” she says. “Universities accept so many students, but there’s not many jobs available.”
When she found out she had landed a highly sought-after graduate position she was ecstatic, but her joy was to be short lived. “About six months in I started to realise how heavy the work was mentally, physically and emotionally,” she says.
“Probably the top reason that I decided it wasn’t for me was all the [patients on] drugs and alcohol. There was a lot of abuse. When I first started I was told to put the security number in my phone on speed dial. I thought, ‘What do I need to do to get out of here?’.”
Behrouz was 21-years-old when she left the apparent safety of her highly sought after graduate position. On her way out, she closed the door on a job she knew she had been lucky to have, and would struggle to get back if she changed her mind.
Duigan from Headspace says safety can breed a reluctance to change. “Safety is comfortable. It’s one of the fundamental human needs, to feel safe and protected and have [your] basic needs met,” he says. “Any big life move like that is going to bring with it a huge amount of uncertainty and change.
“Without meaning and purpose, the perfect job for one person could be the perfectly wrong job for the person standing next to them.”
The hardest part for Behrouz was wondering how her mum would take her decision. “When I got the [nursing job] offer Mum was crying because she was so happy,” she says. “I felt bad to do that to her … but she knew I’d come home so drained from all the abuse, so that was a lot to deal with.”
The influence of family on young Australian’s career paths is growing. A 2014 report on first year university students from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education found that 41 per cent felt family members influenced their enrolment choice. In 1994 that number was 25 per cent.
The pressure on young adults to make life choices approved by family and friends is something Duigan says can influence the decision making process for people in their twenties. “We are all influenced by what’s happening around us,” he says. “This stage of life between about 17 to 23, there’s really huge changes that are happening in terms of how influenced we are by particular people.”
Regardless of any pressure she felt to carry on, Behrouz realised she couldn’t continue the way she was and made the decision to leave her job behind. Her reasons to move on became glaringly obvious once she started to look around her. “None of my friends were doing night shifts,” she says. “People I knew weren’t dealing with the things that I was, they were working in clothing stores, offices, gyms, things like that. I just got angry. ‘Why do I have to deal with all of this?’.”
Behrouz left her graduate position in September this year. One month later she was training to be a cosmetic nurse. It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted. “I’m more excited for my future now,” she says. “Cosmetics make me excited … I feel like it suits me better. I love the idea of being able to go into a nice environment like a clinic where people come to you, not that they’ve been forced by an ambulance, or police officers and restraints.”
As Behrouz settles onto her new path, Goodall fills up the tank in preparation for his own journey. In the not-so-distant future, while his family and friends welcome in the new year, Goodall will leave them all behind and hit the road. Which road he will take he doesn’t know, but he’s ready to take on the twists, turns, and unexpected bumps if it’s going to lead him to where and who he wants to be.
“Ideally I’d want to be a person who lives exactly how they believe the correct way should be,” he says. “I’m okay if that means living in a van, if I can do what I want to do. That’s how desperate I am.”
For tips on how to maintain a healthy headspace, click here.