How To Do the Work Only You Can Do
7 lessons from a man who walked on the moon
Recently, Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, passed away. Though his body is now gone, his legacy remains — not just through the incredible feat he accomplished but through how he documented it.
In 2016, I spoke with Alan on the phone for a book I was writing with no idea that less than eighteen months later, he would be gone. Although Alan walked on the moon, he will most likely be remembered as an artist — the only man who has ever stepped foot on the moon and painted what he saw.
In our conversation, Alan spoke of space, flight, art, and what it means to do important work. It was one of the most moving and significant conversations of my life, and it only seemed right to share it with others.
So here are the lessons I learned from Alan Bean.
1. Your Life’s Work Will Surprise You
As a boy, Alan’s dream was to become a navy pilot, a path he followed with discipline, becoming an aeronautical engineer, then going on to flight training to realize his dream.
At one point, he thought, This is as good as it gets.
“I thought I had the best job in the world,” Alan told me.
But for some reason, it wasn’t enough.
Alan saw his neighbors buy some paintings and thought he could probably paint something that looked just as good.
And that’s how he started painting, a hobby that would eventually lead him to his life’s work.
He never could have imagined at that point that he would eventually go on to become an astronaut, much less one of the few individuals who would walk on the moon. But that’s just what he did.
And painting the moon for the last forty years of his life, commemorating that unique experience and capturing for generations to come?
Well, that wasn’t even on Alan’s radar.
But that’s how a calling works. Your life’s work is rarely what you expect it to be. And would we have it any other way?
2. When in Doubt, Keep Going
As a navy pilot, Alan continued to paint, enrolling in night classes in drawing and water coloring. He wasn’t any good at first, but he liked it.
His friends noticed his new hobby and told him if he wanted to advance his career that he was better off learning golf. But Alan wasn’t interested in golf. He had always done what interested him. So he kept on painting.
Eventually, he transitioned into working for NASA, where he was busier than ever. Still, he kept on painting when he could find the time. Art was his one and only hobby, and he dedicated himself to it with the same discipline he gave the rest of his career.
At thirty-seven years old, Alan served as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12, the second mission to the moon — becoming the fourth man to walk on the moon, exploring the lunar surface and installing the first nuclear power generator station there.
In 1973, he flew on the space station Skylab 3 as the spacecraft commander for fifty-nine days in orbit.
During that time of navigating the cosmos, Alan saw incredible things, things that most people will never get the opportunity to see. And yet, he never settled. He never stopped moving forward.
When he could have coasted through a career in the military, he joined NASA.
When his friends said to stop painting, he kept doing it because he enjoyed it.
Even when he walked on the moon, he didn’t stop there.
Alan kept going. And if we are going to find our life’s work, the thing that only we can do, we must do the same.
3. Do What Only You Can Do
One day, while training to fly the space shuttle, Alan said to himself, “Boy, there’s young men and women around here who can do this as good as I can, but there’s no one who’s been given this gift of walking on the moon.”
It gave him pause.
In his mind, anyone could fly the space shuttle, maybe even fly it to the moon. But who else could paint it? Only Alan. He had a gift that needed to be shared.
“If I could leave here,” he told me, “and if I could learn to be better, then I could leave stories and images that wouldn’t be done otherwise.”
As he contemplated leaving NASA, the middle-aged astronaut began to count the cost. He’d be given an incredible education and training to become an astronaut, but he’d also been given the gift of art.
“You know, I got to thinking,” he said, “It would be nice if Columbus had taken an artist with him. We’d know a lot more. If Magellan had, that would have been a good thing.”
Seeing the moon up close and personal, trudging through the dust beneath his feet — these were experiences no other artist could fully express. No one except Alan. And the more he thought about this, the more excited he became.
Soon, the choice was obvious: Alan had to paint the moon because no one else could — at least not like him.
That’s how Alan Bean became the first astronaut artist and the only person in history to paint the moon from firsthand experience.
As crazy as it sounds, we all have something like that, something only we can do. You may call it a purpose or a calling or your life’s work, but you are here to do important work. And sometimes, you have to leave your comfort zone to do it.
Even if you’ve walked on the moon.
4. Don’t Chase Passion, Fulfill Your Duty
When Alan left NASA in 1981 to paint full-time, the reaction from his friends was mixed.
“About half thought it was a good idea,” he said. “The other [half] thought I was having a midlife crisis. And they’d say things to me like, ‘Well, look Alan, you’ve got millions and millions of dollars’ worth of training that other people don’t have. You think this a good way to put it use?’ I’d been given this gift, all this training, all this knowledge that I had. It was unusual.”
But he had considered that already, and this was more than some creative whim.
“I’m a guy who has done his duty his whole life,” Alan told me. “And, so, I said, ‘This is what I should be doing, because they won’t miss me here. And if I don’t do this, then a lot of these images and a lot of the stories that I captured will be forgotten.’”
Typically, we don’t think of our work as a duty, especially when we think of creative fields like writing and making art and starting a business. If anything, these pursuits are often fun and interesting. But a duty? I’m not so sure.
But Alan is a military man, someone who had always done what was required of him. And when he saw an opportunity to do something that had never been done before, he seized. He was not merely chasing a passion — he was, in a way, answering a calling.
“I didn’t leave my job as an astronaut because I had this creative urge,” he told me in a thick Texas drawl. “I left because I felt it was my duty to do these paintings to celebrate this great event I was blessed to be a part of.”
He saw the bigger picture, noticing a need only he could meet. And he stepped out, risking total career suicide, to meet that need.
It was a big risk, and sometimes passion is not enough to sustain us. We need something more than the excitement of a new pursuit. We need to know that we are doing the work only we can do — that we are fulfilling our duty.
5. Aim for Improvement, Not Mastery
So here was Alan, with this responsibility to paint the moon, something only he could do, and as he started his new career as an artist, he realized something:
He wasn’t that good.
“I took my work down and compared it to what was in the galleries and what was in the museums,” he said, “and I could see that I wasn’t anywhere near there, and I never would be probably as good as what you see.
At first, this made Alan sad. What was the point of painting the moon if he could never be as good as the greats?
Then he realized that wasn’t his job. And it’s not yours, either. Our job isn’t to be great at what we do. It’s to consistently get better, which in its own way is a form of greatness.
“I could get better,” he told me, “and I could get competitive.”
So Alan began to practice. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. And for nearly four decades, he has painted the moon. Today, Alan Bean’s artwork is featured in galleries all over the United States.
He did his duty, and he did it well.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Charge for Your Work
Shortly after leaving NASA and launching his career as an artist, Alan realized something: he had to make money at this.
For him, it was never about making millions. This was his duty, his calling. He had to do this; otherwise, no one else would. But he quickly understood that if he didn’t make any money, this new purpose of his would be short-lived.
“If I was going to devote my life to it,” he said. “I somehow had to make a living doing it.”
Today, Alan’s paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, sometimes more. An original called First Men: Neil Armstrong, a forty-by-thirty-inch textured acrylic, recently sold for $228,600.
And that all began with a conscious effort to not be afraid to charge for his work — not for the money, but so that he could keep doing the work.
This is not a selfish or even greedy decision. It’s a practical one. If we don’t make money off our work, then we will spend less time on our work.
As Walt Disney famously said, “We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.”
Money is a great means but a terrible master. Don’t work for the money. Earn money so that you can do the work.
7. Use What You Have
So he began experimenting with ways to make money off his art. But how could he earn enough to provide for himself and his family when he kept comparing himself to the likes of Monet and Picasso?
We all do this: we question the work we do and compare it to what someone else is doing. But that’s their duty, not ours. And they have the authority and advantage over us because that’s their work.
Alan realized this one day in his studio when he was staring at a half-finished painting, wondering how he was going to do this. And as he glanced away from the painting, he noticed something. His spacesuit.
When you walk on the moon and orbit space, they apparently let you keep most of your gear.
So Alan began to use what he had. He used the shovel from the moon landing to scratch up the surface of the canvas to give it texture. He used his boots to create footprints on some of his paintings. And to top it off, he sprinkled a little bit of moon dust on every single work of art.
Because who else has those tools? Who else has access to moon dust and space shovels? No one. At least no one else who can paint the moon.
This is what it means to do your duty, the work that only you can do. You can’t compare yourself to others and keep trying to measure up to someone else’s standard. To do what no one else can do, you have to use what no one else has.
Which is to say, the tools and skills and experiences that make you uniquely you are incredible advantages over the competition — if you know to use them.
Now It’s Your Turn
Those are the lessons I learned from Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. And the truth is his story isn’t about walking on the moon. It’s about realizing we are all here to do something unique.
If you have something only you can do in this world, you have to find a way to do that work. It’s not just a question of passion but of duty. We are responsible for our lives and making the most of them. And if what we’re doing is something someone else can do, then it’s time to move on.
Don’t worry about what other people are doing or how they’re doing it. Do life your way on your terms and use the skills and tools and resources available to you — even when those things look like weaknesses. Everything can be useful if you let it.
And don’t forget to support yourself. If you make enough money doing your work, as Alan learned, you’ll have time to do more of it.
We all have a gift to share. For Alan, that was his art. For me, it’s my writing. For you, it may be something else. But we all have to come to a point where we realize: if we don’t do this, no one else will.
Thank you, Alan, for your art and your life and for doing your duty. May you be an example for us all to follow.