In high school, after his father died, Ryan dived into his studies and extracurricular activities. He was in 10 clubs; he was class president; he was prom king.
He was also voted "biggest brown-noser" his senior year.
The ambition that may have won him that moniker stayed with Ryan into his early adulthood.
While living and working in Washington as a twenty-something, he sought out high-profile Republicans as bosses and mentors who were like-minded about supply-side economics and espousing what Ryan has called individualism over collectivism. Ryan became extremely close with former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett when he wrote speeches and did research at their think tank, Empower America.
When asked what made him think, in his twenties, that he was qualified to go back to Janesville and run for Congress, Ryan said Kemp and Bennett helped give him the confidence, after teaching him about the importance of what he calls the "power of ideas."
"What Jack, and Bill Bennett as well, taught me was that the power of ideas is great -- that if you really believe in a cause you can make a difference in this country. I learned at a young age that if you apply yourself, you can actually make a difference."
Ryan also cultivated important Republican players back home, like Steve King.
King said he chose to back Ryan as the GOP candidate in the open congressional seat in 1998 over other more experienced candidates.
"One or two were frankly not happy with me. And one was kind of a close personal friend," recalled King, who said his decision to back Ryan shattered that friendship.
But King said he never regretted it, because from "day one" it was clear that Ryan was an "old soul."
"He gets it," King said.
Ryan also had something others considering a run for Congress in the 1st District of Wisconsin didn't: the Ryan name.
His large family has been in the area since the 19th century. His uncle founded Ryan Inc., a highly successful dirt-moving company. Until Ryan's father died, his name was on the law firm that towers over the center of town.
Luck of the Irish tie
Mitt Romney noted to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Ryan has never debated in the kind of forum he will be in against Biden, but Ryan has had election year debates as a candidate for Congress.
We showed Ryan a photograph of one of his debates against his Democratic opponent during his first campaign, against Democrat Lydia Spotswood.
He noticed that he was wearing what he called his "lucky Irish tie," a green one that he wore on most of his election nights during his seven congressional campaigns.
Will he wear it during his debate with Biden?
"I don't know. I have to see if I can dig it up," he said with a laugh
'I'm not intimidated'
In that first congressional campaign, Spotswood was 47 years old. She was quoted then as saying she was old enough to be Ryan's mother.
Biden, 69, also is a generation older than Ryan, 42. Not to mention, as Ryan pointed out over and over, Biden has extensive experience debating on a national stage as a vice presidential candidate and presidential candidate during the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Is Ryan intimidated?
"No I'm not intimidated," replied Ryan, "I'm actually excited about it. I came to Congress when I was 28 years old. I'm used to debating people who are older," he said, though he also noted that one of the reasons his team chose Ted Olson to play the role of Biden in mock debates is because he is "about Joe's age."