The Vim Learning Curve is a Myth

Ben Orenstein

I’ve been speaking about and teaching people vim for several years now, and I’ve noticed a surprising pattern: people are literally afraid of learning the editor.

Over the years, the popular mythology around vim has become that it’s insanely difficult to learn; a task to be attempted by only those with the thickest of neck-beards. I’ve heard dozens of times from folks who are convinced it will take them months to reach proficiency.

These beliefs are false. Here’s what’s true:

You can learn to use vim in 30 minutes

Go to your shell and type vimtutor. The tutorial that’s presented is excellent and you’ll be through it in no time. Once you’re done, you’ll have the rudiments needed to get your work done. You won’t be fast yet, no; but you’ll be competent. And even after those 30 minutes, you’re going to start grasping the ideas that make vim so amazing: the brilliant design decision that is modal editing, the composability of commands, the clever mnemonic naming of commands. These will be enough to make you want to learn more.

Learning vim is fun because it’s game-like

No one ever says “I’d love to learn Street Fighter 2, but there are just so many combos!” People don’t say this because learning a game is enjoyable. You start off with just the basic kicks and punches, and those get you by. Later, you learn more advanced moves, maybe even by accident.

Learning vim is like this. At first, you do everything as simply as possible. Then you start to wonder if there are faster ways to get things done, and there are! If you chain those commands together they just work! You bump into things accidentally, or maybe you spend some time in the extensive help files. Over time, you burn a few advanced tricks into your muscle memory.

Soon, you realize there are many ways to accomplish your edits, and you strive to do them in as few keystrokes as possible. This can be incredibly satisfying, particularly to us technical-types that seem to have a higher-than-average appreciation for efficiency. It may be hard to believe that trimming one keystroke off a command will one day trigger a dopamine response, but I swear it’s true. Just ask these guys.

You’ll be faster than your old editor in two weeks

If you use vim all day and make an effort to use it well, you’ll be editing code faster than you did in your old editor within two weeks. A couple tips to help you on your way: keep a cheat sheet of commands you’re trying to commit to memory, find a friend that’s an experienced vim user for the many questions that you’ll have in the beginning (ask in #vim if you have no such friend), and pay attention to things you do that feel inefficient (there’s almost definitely a better way). If none of that works, reach out to me on twitter and I’ll try to help you out.

It’s effing worth it

There’s a reason everyone at thoughtbot is using a 20-year-old text editor. There’s a reason I’ve flown to other countries to try to convert more vim users. There’s a reason people love this editor. Maybe you should find out why.

Good luck! And happy vimming.

What’s next

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