Investment Philanthropy Wisdom

21. What Are The 8 Unexpected Lessons To Be Learned When Charlie Munger Designs A Dorm?

Excellent Book: Charlie Munger For All Seasons

When Charlie Munger funds and designs the Physics Dorm at UCSB, we can learn 8 valuable lessons and have fun at the same time. (By the way, please feel free to join my Facebook Group @


Lesson 1: Know your history. Napoleon learned the hard way that attacking Russia in winter was a big mistake. Hitler repeated the mistake. Neither won the war they fought.
Lesson 2: Physicists deserve our respect.

Four years ago, on the Fourth of July, Charlie Munger, the billionaire who is vice chair of Warren Buffet’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, sat down with Lars Bildsten, UCSB’s theoretical physics director. The meeting went well.

Munger offered to donate $65 million for a residence building at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. “It’s the main visiting physics program in the whole damn world,” Munger, 92, said this week in a telephone interview. “It’s a huge feather in the cap of UC Santa Barbara. Physicists are important. If we had lost the war against Hitler, which we very easily could have if he hadn’t attacked Russia, the physicists would have won it for us.”

Lesson 3. You have to care about other disciplines. An architect who doesn’t care about engineering is like a doctor who doesn’t care about anatomy. If a diner which serves puffer fish has a chef who doesn’t understand the anatomy of a puffer fish, would you go there?

Hundreds of top scientists, half from out of the country, are accepted every year into the institute’s programs and stay in Santa Barbara. Now they will have a fine place to stay. Early next year, the visiting scholars will reside in the new spectacular building on El Colegio Road.

“Architecture is the queen of the arts,” said Munger, who lives part-time in Montecito and has a grandson who attended UCSB. “[Winston] Churchill said we shape our buildings and then they shape us. The architecture impacts the human outcome.”

Too many architects, he said, want to be sculptors without caring about the engineering. “That’s grievous. It’s like a doctor that didn’t want to learn anatomy,” he said, adding, “It’s kind of a hobby.”

Lesson 4. Know your area of competence. Here, Charlie Munger made a concession in allowing the chalkboards.

Munger invoked this thinking to hone the details of the three-story, ivory-white house made up of 61 units. Built by The Towbes Group, the structure stands apart from most of the haphazard infrastructure on the Santa Barbara campus. High ceilings and 10-foot-wide corridors make the interior feel spacious. Airy dining areas face wetlands and offer a mountain view. The window frames are made of steel. Nearly everything ​— ​down to the exact width of décor on the doors ​— ​“was all Charlie,” said Bildsten.

Likewise, Munger insisted more than 50 international flags line the hallways. Two-dozen chalkboards are scattered inside and out. “I can guess these blackboards will be filled with equations immediately,” Bildsten said. Munger initially wanted whiteboards, but Bildsten convinced him chalkboards are a longstanding tradition in the field.

Lesson 5. Multi-disciplinary knowledge is an asset without neglecting one’s specialization. Charlie Munger didn’t just talk but he walked the talk when he designed the dorms to encourage intellectual bonding of different specialties.

In the basement ​ ​a rare feature in California, also at Munger’s instruction ​ ​is room for Ping-Pong tables, surfboards, musical instruments, and bike storage, which makes it feel more like an underground fraternity. The patios have several barbecues. One purpose is to encourage intellectual bonding after hours among scientists with different specialties. In all, it is utterly magnificent. “Well, that’s the idea,” Munger said.

Lesson 6. If possible, don’t design horrible dorms. Design dorms that even those not too self-motivated are inclined to study. (Inversion thinking in practice.)

Munger said the dorm room he lived in is still there 70 years later. “It was horrible when I was there. Two beds, two desks, bath down the hall. That is a really stupid system. And yet it was the norm. It’s not that much better [now].” Even so, he said, it did not impact his studies. “I am a self-motivated person,” he said.

Lesson 7. Something you might like to hear. Even the “Abominable No-Man”, as Warren Buffet describes him, can sometimes be persuaded but you have to be right of course.

“He can make a donation that is so serious that he can also make certain decisions,” said Monica Curry, a former UCSB housing coordinator who worked closely with Munger on the Kavli center project. “He will allow himself to be persuaded, [but] you have to persuade him.”

Lesson 8. Starting smart is an advantage. And if you end up equally smart or smarter with good ethical values, Charlie Munger will think well of you. Starting up smart and ending up stupid, well that’s stupid.

Munger said he did not get to know Chancellor Henry Yang until working with him on the Kavli center project, but he was thoroughly impressed, calling him “the most successful chancellor in the history of the University of California.” How so? Yang keeps learning, he said, and “he started smart. I think the world of him.”