Kenneth Ballenegger

Angel Investor, Engineer, Startup Founder

Tell us one thing about the world that you strongly believe is true, but that most people think is not true.

This essay was written for my application to the Thiel Fellowship. It’s rare for an application essay to spark genuine reflection, but I think this helped me formulate and articulate what my beliefs and ambitions are.

I believe that with enough willpower and effort, anybody can change the world for the better.

While this statement may sound naive and cliché—it rings fundamentally true to me. It is the basis upon which the American Dream is built, and which has driven the United States through the past century. Unfortunately, the dream has been bastardized to the point that it is now more evocative of a fantasy than a dream.

The american political landscape—in its constant bickering and back-and-forth—tries to capture the public’s goodwill by using and glamorizing ideas that appeal to their humanity. Things like religion, freedom, and the American Dream are prime topics to drive agreement and enthusiasm. This, unfortunately, has made the few who diverge from the status quo, and who think for themselves, wary of beliefs like that.

Fundamentally, though, there is some truth to the idea that the world is a place where anybody has an opportunity to make a difference. It is not an easy thing to go against to the common wisdom, to persevere when everybody thinks you are crazy. It takes courage, self-confidence and determination. But time and time again, we have seen people do it and achieve inconceivable results—from Ghandi and Thomas Edison, to modern luminaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Achievements do not necessarily have to be of that magnitude either. Some of the people I respect most are neither famous nor widely known. But they are people who take their craft to heart and are determined to make a difference however they can. They strive to be the best at what they do, and in so doing make a positive difference in the world. A small difference, sure, but if the majority of people thought and acted that way, it would go a long way towards alleviating the world’s problems and making it a more pleasant place to live in.

One of the qualities I respect most in people is their ability and willingness to think for themselves, and take action to back up their ideals. Think there’s a problem with an aspect of your life? Quit bitching and do something about it! (Within reason, of course.) Creativity and entrepreneurship are the basis for innovation, but they are fragile things. In today’s remix culture, it is far too easy to spend hours watching videos on YouTube, or shows on TV, or doing entertaining yet inconsequential things instead of actually creating something.

Ambition is another important factor in making a difference. When you hear Musk or Jobs talk, they will tell you about having an insane utopian vision for the world. Jobs sees a world of interconnected and designed technology, that just works and is accessible for all to use and enjoy. Musk sees a world where every car is electric, where our energy is clean and solar, and where we have expanded into space. They see their current achievements as the first step towards their lofty goals. They probably won’t achieve those goals in their lifetimes. But, in trying to get there, they have already changed the world in a major way. If you set your goal far enough, even if you only get ten percent of the way there, you’ve already accomplished something amazing.

These are all principles that I take to heart and try to apply to my life. My skills lie in software and design, and thus when I encounter a challenge in my life I try to design a better solution through software. If it is a challenge that other people may also encounter, I will polish my solution and turn it into an actual product. If, as a result, I have made a million people or just one person’s life more pleasant—I will have made a positive difference in the world. Originally from Switzerland, I moved to San Francisco by myself in order to be closer to a community of people who strive for the same thing I do. People who can enrich my knowledge and view of the world and will ultimately enable me to make an even bigger difference in the world.

One project that caught my attention this summer is Diaspora. While TechCrunch and everybody on the internet were busy complaining about their disagreement with Facebook’s privacy policy change, a group of students from NYU decided to actually do something about it. I was compelled to donate to the project, because even if the project goes nowhere, their willingness to act is something to be encouraged. My belief is that with enough willpower and effort, I will be able to make a notable difference in the world. And my hope is that many other people will too.