Listen to most self-help advice -- at least professional self-help advice -- and it seems the first step to leading a fulfilling life is finding your passion. Find your passion and everything else follows.

Which is fine. But how do you know when you've found your passion?

Hold that thought.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the 2012 IndyCar Series championship, won the 2014 Indy 500 -- the one event every driver would love to win -- and is the most successful active American open-wheel driver, with more race wins than all other American drivers combined.

He's hugely successful, but as you'll see in the following interview, the road to that success was anything but easy. (And you'll also see that race drivers have way more in common with entrepreneurs than you might have imagined.)

I like to ask incredibly successful people the one piece of advice they would give other people about finding their own success. What's yours?

Whatever you decide to do, it has to be the center of your world. It has to be the first thing you think about when you wake up, the last thing you think about before you fall asleep, what you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night ...

That degree of passion translates into a drive and work ethic that can give you the opportunity to succeed at doing what you love. While that still doesn't mean you're guaranteed to succeed, without that level of passion and drive, you definitely won't.

Drive and work ethic are almost irrelevant when things are going well. It's when times get tough ...

The pursuit of my dream was definitely character building. The hard times taught me a lot about racing, about people, about business, about life.

Racing is an unusual sport. In "stick and ball" sports, talent is basically everything. Ability rises to the top. If you're a pitcher with a 95-mph fastball and a great curve, there's a place for you in baseball.

In racing, you need to have all the skills on the track--talent, situational awareness, speed, willingness to take risks--plus you also have to be a person and a brand that is appealing and sellable, one that corporations want to partner with.

That's especially the case in the lower-level series where there is no immediate return on investment for sponsors. Early on, it's really tough to attract funding.

That's why I want my kids to be pro golfers. (Laughs.)

In a way, that's like a venture capitalist who says, "I'm not necessarily investing in this company. I'm investing in you, and what you might do in the future."

You're right. It's really hard to bridge that gap without family money.

I'll be forever grateful that my dad sacrificed a lot of time and money on me in karting, but we didn't have the kind of money it takes to go any farther. Luckily, I was one of the first kart drivers to win the Skip Barber scholarship. That was really what allowed me to move from karts to cars.

I was a Skip Barber spokesperson, sponsored by the school for about four years: two years in Formula Dodge, two years in the Barber Pro series. Then I found an investor so I could take the next step in my career.

Basically that means someone invests in your career in the hopes of sharing in later financial returns? That's common in sports like boxing.

It was a lot like a startup seeking angel investors. I had to pitch quite a few people to find someone willing to invest in my career and allow me to build a platform of results.

During that process, I learned a lot about research, about negotiating, about crafting presentations. It really was like pitching a startup to investors, except the startup was me.

It was a ton of work with almost no return, but I didn't care. I knew that given an opportunity, I could succeed. I just had to find that opportunity.

Even so, it was a struggle. In 2005, I was in a horribly underfunded car. In 2006 and 2007, I was basically jobless. I went to race tracks every weekend, talking to owners, talking to teams, trying to find any ride I could that would help get my career on track.

At one point, I was out of money, realizing that no matter how badly I wanted it, there wasn't much time left before I would just have to move on.

And then the Rahal team called and said, "Can you be ready for Mid-Ohio?"

So you went from a part-time gig in a Porsche sports car to the IndyCar Series?

The next thing I know I'm getting fitted for a jumpsuit so I can jump in a car I don't know -- and Bobby Rahal and David Letterman are my bosses.

No pressure. (Laughs.)

That was a huge opportunity, but it had to feel like a make-or-break moment. Wanting it is one thing. Proving you belong is another.

I had to use that energy in a positive way. In racing, one mistake spells disaster, but you still have to push 110 percent. That's what good racing drivers do.

More than anything, controlling how you mentally and emotionally process things is huge. Earlier in my career, I would get excited and let the pressure of a big opportunity almost consume me, and rarely did that turn out well.

The key is to believe yourself. Doubting is a huge problem in racing or in anything.

That and you have to be selfish. (Laughs.) Racing is an extremely selfish sport. Drivers are fighting for seats at every level, especially this one. There are only 21 seats on a given weekend. (For the Indy 500, the field is expanded to 33 cars.)

You have to be extremely aggressive -- and have the confidence to believe you deserve the spot.

When you won the championship, was your first feeling one of joy or of relief?

I won the championship by three points. It came down to the last lap of the final race.

When I realized I had won, it was definitely a feeling of relief. If you're in the points race, the pressure rides you all season. It's the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing you think about at night. It's always there.

Winning a championship is the most respected accomplishment in racing. So it was with me every practice, every lap. So the first feeling was relief.

Then it shifts to joy. I remember on the cool-down lap thinking of all those days in a trailer at a small kart track, sweating my ass off with my dad, wrenching on karts. That whole journey flashed through my mind.

Just like your first win, your first championship is such an overwhelming elephant in the room, in your head, that you really have to work at controlling it and keeping it at bay. You have to keep telling yourself, "Just doing what you know how to do," despite the immense pressure coming from your team, your sponsors, your competitors but most of all from within yourself.

That's another great thing about finding your passion. Everything it takes to get there, everything that is on the line--that's what makes the pursuit possible.

So that's what I would say: Find something you care about so much that it is the center of your professional world. That will give you the drive and work ethic you'll need to have the opportunity to succeed.

Published on: Sep 14, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.