Julia Evans

What helps people get comfortable on the command line?

Sometimes I talk to friends who need to use the command line, but are intimidated by it. I never really feel like I have good advice (I’ve been using the command line for too long), and so I asked some people on Mastodon:

if you just stopped being scared of the command line in the last year or three — what helped you?

(no need to reply if you don’t remember, or if you’ve been using the command line comfortably for 15 years — this question isn’t for you :) )

This list is still a bit shorter than I would like, but I’m posting it in the hopes that I can collect some more answers. There obviously isn’t one single thing that works for everyone – different people take different paths.

I think there are three parts to getting comfortable: reducing risks, motivation and resources. I’ll start with risks, then a couple of motivations and then list some resources.

ways to reduce risk

A lot of people are (very rightfully!) concerned about accidentally doing some destructive action on the command line that they can’t undo.

A few strategies people said helped them reduce risks:

  • regular backups (one person mentioned they accidentally deleted their entire home directory last week in a command line mishap, but it was okay because they had a backup)
  • For code, using git as much as possible
  • Aliasing rm to a tool like safe-rm or rmtrash so that you can’t accidentally delete something you shouldn’t (or just rm -i)
  • Mostly avoid using wildcards, use tab completion instead. (my shell will tab complete rm *.txt and show me exactly what it’s going to remove)
  • Fancy terminal prompts that tell you the current directory, machine you’re on, git branch, and whether you’re root
  • Making a copy of files if you’re planning to run an untested / dangerous command on them
  • Having a dedicated test machine (like a cheap old Linux computer or Raspberry Pi) for particularly dangerous testing, like testing backup software or partitioning
  • Use --dry-run options for dangerous commands, if they’re available
  • Build your own --dry-run options into your shell scripts

a “killer app”

A few people mentioned a “killer command line app” that motivated them to start spending more time on the command line. For example:

  • ripgrep
  • jq
  • wget / curl
  • git (some folks found they preferred the git CLI to using a GUI)
  • ffmpeg (for video work)
  • yt-dlp
  • hard drive data recovery tools (from this great story)

A couple of people also mentioned getting frustrated with GUI tools (like heavy IDEs that use all your RAM and crash your computer) and being motivated to replace them with much lighter weight command line tools.

inspiring command line wizardry

One person mentioned being motivated by seeing cool stuff other people were doing with the command line, like:

explain shell

Several people mentioned explainshell where you can paste in any shell incantation and get it to break it down into different parts.

history, tab completion, etc:

There were lots of little tips and tricks mentioned that make it a lot easier to work on the command line, like:

  • up arrow to see the previous command
  • Ctrl+R to search your bash history
  • navigating inside a line with Ctrl+w (to delete a word), Ctrl+a (to go to the beginning of the line), Ctrl+e (to go to the end), and Ctrl+left arrow / Ctrl+right arrow (to jump back/forward a word)
  • setting bash history to unlimited
  • cd - to go back to the previous directory
  • tab completion of filenames and command names
  • learning how to use a pager like less to read man pages or other large text files (how to search, scroll, etc)
  • backing up configuration files before editing them
  • using pbcopy/pbpaste on Mac OS to copy/paste from your clipboard to stdout/stdin
  • on Mac OS, you can drag a folder from the Finder into the terminal to get its path


Lots of mentions of using fzf as a better way to fuzzy search shell history. Some other things people mentioned using fzf for:

  • picking git branches (git checkout $(git for-each-ref --format='%(refname:short)' refs/heads/ | fzf))
  • quickly finding files to edit (nvim $(fzf))
  • switching kubernetes contexts (kubectl config use-context $(kubectl config get-contexts -o name | fzf --height=10 --prompt="Kubernetes Context> "))
  • picking a specific test to run from a test suite

The general pattern here is that you use fzf to pick something (a file, a git branch, a command line argument), fzf prints the thing you picked to stdout, and then you insert that as the command line argument to another command.

You can also use fzf as an tool to automatically preview the output and quickly iterate, for example:

  • automatically previewing jq output (echo '' | fzf --preview "jq {q} < YOURFILE.json")
  • or for sed (echo '' | fzf --preview "sed {q} YOURFILE")
  • or for awk (echo '' | fzf --preview "awk {q} YOURFILE")

You get the idea.

In general folks will generally define an alias for their fzf incantations so you can type gcb or something to quickly pick a git branch to check out.

raspberry pi

Some people started using a Raspberry Pi, where it’s safer to experiment without worrying about breaking your computer (you can just erase the SD card and start over!)

a fancy shell setup

Lots of people said they got more comfortable with the command line when they started using a more user-friendly shell setup like oh-my-zsh or fish. I really agree with this one – I’ve been using fish for 10 years and I love it.

A couple of other things you can do here:

  • some folks said that making their terminal prettier helped them feel more comfortable (“make it pink!”).
  • set up a fancy shell prompt to give you more information (for example you can make the prompt red when a command fails). Specifically transient prompts (where you set a super fancy prompt for the current command, but a much simpler one for past commands) seem really nice.

Some tools for theming your terminal:

  • I use base16-shell
  • powerlevel10k is a popular fancy zsh theme which has transient prompts
  • starship is a fancy prompt tool
  • on a Mac, I think iTerm2 is easier to customize than the default terminal

a fancy file manager

A few people mentioned fancy terminal file managers like ranger or nnn, which I hadn’t heard of.

a helpful friend or coworker

Someone who can answer beginner questions and give you pointers is invaluable.

shoulder surfing

Several mentions of watching someone more experienced using the terminal – there are lots of little things that experienced users don’t even realize they’re doing which you can pick up.


Lots of people said that making their own aliases or scripts for commonly used tasks felt like a magical “a ha!” moment, because:

  • they don’t have to remember the syntax
  • then they have a list of their most commonly used commands that they can summon easily

cheat sheets to get examples

A lot of man pages don’t have examples, for example the openssl s_client man page has no examples. This makes it a lot harder to get started!

People mentioned a couple of cheat sheet tools, like:

  • tldr.sh
  • cheat (which has the bonus of being editable – you can add your own commands to reference later)
  • um (an incredibly minimal system that you have to build yourself)

For example the cheat page for openssl is really great – I think it includes almost everything I’ve ever actually used openssl for in practice (except the -servername option for openssl s_client).

One person said that they configured their .bash_profile to print out a cheat sheet every time they log in.

don’t try to memorize

A couple of people said that they needed to change their approach – instead of trying to memorize all the commands, they realized they could just look up commands as needed and they’d naturally memorize the ones they used the most over time.

(I actually recently had the exact same realization about learning to read x86 assembly – I was taking a class and the instructor said “yeah, just look everything up every time to start, eventually you’ll learn the most common instructions by heart”)

Some people also said the opposite – that they used a spaced repetition app like Anki to memorize commonly used commands.


One person mentioned that they started using vim on the command line to edit files, and once they were using a terminal text editor it felt more natural to use the command line for other things too.

Also apparently there’s a new editor called micro which is like a nicer version of pico/nano, for folks who don’t want to learn emacs or vim.

use Linux on the desktop

One person said that they started using Linux as their main daily driver, and having to fix Linux issues helped them learn. That’s also how I got comfortable with the command too back in ~2004 (I was really into installing lots of different Linux distributions to try to find my favourite one), but my guess is that it’s not the most popular strategy these days.

being forced to only use the terminal

Some people said that they took a university class where the professor made them do everything in the terminal, or that they created a rule for themselves that they had to do all their work in the terminal for a while.


A couple of people said that workshops like Software Carpentry workshops (an introduction to the command line, git, and Python/R programming for scientists) helped them get more comfortable with the command line.

You can see the software carpentry curriculum here.

books & articles

a few that were mentioned:




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