195: Identity Alchemy: What I Learned From My First Big Photo Job


“At the beginning, I didn’t even feel worthy to work with a brand like Nike.”
– Nick Onken

Hey, guys, welcome back to ONKEN RADIO (previously NION Radio), the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey!

In today’s episode of ONKEN RADIO, I’m going to share with you some of my history and a story during the deconstruction phase of my life. I’ve been working on a lot of identity alchemy projects recently, which pushed me to deconstruct things about my past. 

I’ve been mulling over what it means to become better versions of ourselves, why there’s no such thing as a professional misstep, and how knowing who you don’t want to be can help you on your journey to finding out who you do want to be.

I’ve also been unpacking the impact of my first big job and the struggles I went through afterward. Landing a huge gig can be a great confidence booster, but if that immediate success isn’t instantly followed by a slew of new and greater successes, your path forward can become daunting. Learning all of these has helped me create the facets of my upcoming Identity Alchemy Program that I’m excited to share with you soon!

In this episode, I discuss the phases of my career, what identity alchemy is, and how my first big job affected my professional outlook forever — without further ado, let’s get started. 

What My First Big Photo Job Taught Me

I’ve been doing photography for over 15 years. I’ve shot for huge brands like Nike and Coca-Cola, for celebrities like Justin Bieber and Usher, and magazines like Condé Nast, Traveler, and Cosmopolitan. But before all of these, I didn’t even think I was worthy enough to work with a brand like Nike or really any of these.

I used to work as a graphic designer for logos, websites, brochures, and other things for different clients before I started transitioning to photography, shooting weddings, and working with a few friends. It was in 2005 when I got my first huge job for Nike. It was for shooting pro sports players, like Ben Roethlisberger, Brian Urlacher, and Mariano Rivera. I had never done anything like this in my career and my life. After the job was done, I thought to myself that I knew what I wanted to do in my life — I wanted to be a commercial photographer. 

So I’ve put all my efforts working towards it. However, I spent the next two years without another job at the same level.. During these two years, I wondered, “AM I even a photographer anymore? Or was this just like a one-hit-wonder?” 

These questions perpetuated so much self-doubt within me. Something inside me was telling me to keep going, but I didn’t know if my dream would ever happen. A part of me felt like I had so much more to give to the world, but the value I was giving was tied to paying my bills, my rent, and other things.

However, something happened while I was shooting a wedding in a dingy beige high school gym in my hometown of Snohomish, Washington. I had been taking photographs of aunties, special dance moves, and cutting the cake scenes when I took a break and went to the restroom. As I was washing my hands, I looked in the mirror, put my hands on my face, and said to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I here and not being the commercial photographer I wanted to be?’

I’m sure you’ve had one of those moments when you also ask the same thing. Now that I think about it, I could say that I’m grateful for that time because it allowed me to feel the pain of not being where I want to be. At that moment, I decided that I would do what it took to create the life I wanted. There should be no excuses. I was going to do everything it needs to get there.

What Is Identity Alchemy?

Similarly to the moment I just described, there might be events in your life that you feel like you aren’t where you’re supposed to be. However, this doesn’t mean that you should quit. What I’m suggesting is for you to take a different path and look at these moments to figure out and deconstruct who you don’t want to be. It’s a crucial part of the whole identity process, whether you want to be an entrepreneur, artist, thought leader, or anything else! 

I call this process of deconstruction “Identity Alchemy.” Through it, you’ll be able to identify your shadows or the things you don’t want to be true about you and shed them slowly. I believe that the deconstruction process of life and your inner world is such a huge piece of understanding who you are so that you can curate who you want to become. In general, I noticed for myself that the more inner work that I do — the deeper shadow work that I do to understand myself — the better life becomes towards the path of wholeness.

Another thing about Identity Alchemy is that it’s a constant practice. As individuals, we change our identities, our ideas, and as we move forward, we need to deconstruct things that are happening in us. Even if you’re not building a personal brand, I believe that it’s still such a huge help in developing yourself as a human on this earth.

In future episodes, I’m going to be sharing more of this Identity Alchemy process. I am building this program to help people shift and navigate their identity through Inner Alchemy and Creative Alchemy to tell their stories and their message to the world. That’s something I’m looking forward to sharing with you all soon!

How Identity Alchemy Improved My Life

Looking back at that moment of staring at my reflection in my mirror, I’m grateful that I was able to have that experience because I realized a lot of things from it. Without it, I might have not found the way back to shooting for Nike again, two years later. I also might have failed to realize that shooting all those weddings in the past taught me how to utilize natural light. All those skills became so handy in the jobs that came after, including shooting bigger campaigns and full productions, among other things. 

So, if you’re in a certain moment of your life despairing that you’ll never move forward, find comfort that everyone has those moments, too. All these moments of feeling that you aren’t getting to where you want to be are the moments that’ll drive you to keep moving forward and never quit. That’s what it was for me, and I believe that it can be the same with you, too.

Don’t Be Afraid to Deconstruct Yourself

Guys, I hope that you found this episode inspiring. Remember that you each have the power to reach your dreams. All you need to do is be willing to undergo life’s painful moments and have the courage to deconstruct them. This will allow you to unleash your creativity and live life in full colors.

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens through which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their creative processes, but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemical processes. These processes are necessary to live the best life possible.

The great news is, you can create the life you’ve always dreamed of. You can create a new identity, start new narratives, and turn around your lives 360 degrees. You can do this by taking a closer look at where you are right now, know where you want to be, and allow yourself to transform into those new identities.

By the way, don’t forget to check out my website for some new projects around Identity Alchemy. I’ve also been doing a lot of hat commissions, so make sure to check them out at onkenhat.com or @onkenhat on Instagram. It’s been a lot of fun as a new creative endeavor, and I’m having clients order hats and then book photoshoots with them.

Thanks again for joining me today everyone. If you find this episode valuable, please screenshot it and post it to Instagram and tag me, @nickonken. Also, you can listen to me on Apple Podcasts — don’t forget to leave a rating and feedback, too!

Now, go out there and create a better version of yourself by creating every moment.

Thanks, everyone! I’ll catch you next time —

Nick Onken

You can Subscribe and Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And please leave me a Rating and Review!


“We’re always shedding an old identity and creating a new identity.”
– Nick Onken

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • What it means to be a better version of ourselves [2:55]
  • The phases of Nick’s career [4:00]
  • Nick’s first big job [5:00]
  • Why it’s important to know who you don’t want to be [9:30]
  • Facets of the Identity Alchemy Program [11:30]

Links Mentioned:

A FREE email series to create a personal visual brand authentic to who you are.

  • Accelerate your personal brand growth through the Identity Alchemy Method
  • Discover the authentic stories you want to share with your audience
  • Build your personal brand vision and crystallize it with a photoshoot
  • Learn how to ideate and create storytelling visual assets to enhance and up-level your personal brand
  • .. PLUS! You’ll get access my brand building book recs and favorite resources

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.