Learning Rust: Mindsets and Expectations

We often hear that Rust is a language that is too complex and too difficult to learn. While, yes, the language is complex, we have identified some existing mindsets and expectations that serve as obstacles to the learning process. Let's discuss these obstacles and how we can alleviate them in our first post on learning Rust.

Comparing Rust to other languages

When you learn your first programming language, it's very likely that you'll hear this observation:

“If you know one programming language, you know them all.”

This statement makes an interesting point, but it is a faulty assumption. It is also more applicable for some sets of languages than it is for others. For instance, it does not take into account which language(s) you know and which one(s) you are learning.

While most languages share a common set of concepts (e.g., variables, conditionals, iteration, data typing, and functions), they may diverge widely beyond the realm of this common ground. Some languages are more divergent than others.

Not only do we have the faulty assumption that knowing one language allows you to "know them all", we also live with the widespread phenomenon of engineers' devotion to a single language. Oftentimes, these engineers consider their favorite languages to be universally superior to others.

With the coupling of these two problems, we see the following patterns emerge:

  • The people who struggle the most are the ones who are already experts in other languages (even the languages that feel similar to Rust, like C, C++, or Go).
  • People often attempt to implement things in Rust in a way that is idiomatic in a different language, even if that other language has significantly different scope and behavior (e.g., Python or JavaScript).
  • People often attempt to implement a relatively complex challenge before they have grasped core Rust concepts (e.g., attempting to use or modify existing libraries, or attempting to re-write a script or large-scale program).

While these learning strategies and approaches are not invalid, they only take you so far. And without immediate successes, it can be very difficult to motivate yourself to continue. In short, your attachment to another language can serve to interfere with learning Rust.

Unsurprisingly, the concepts that are unique to Rust are what cause the most pain during the learning process (e.g., Ownership and Borrowing and Lifetimes).

How to learn Rust - effectively

In tandem with the patterns we have mentioned above: people in the industry are fascinated with Rust and what Rust aims to accomplish, but they hesitate to learn it when they hear rumors about how difficult it is. Thus, they don’t try.

Conversely, we've observed some promising patterns with the folks we've spoken to - folks who have had success learning Rust (either from us, or from the internet at large).

Here's what they tend to have in common:

  • They began their learning process by spending time with Rust's core concepts.
  • They had a mentor or trainer who could help them conceptualize important parts of the language.
  • They started small, building on successful projects and slowly increasing their scope.
  • They were new to programming, or they came from a significantly different domain; thus, they didn't have expectations for how Rust would compare to other languages.

Three things

Learning Rust can and should be an enjoyable and effective experience! Based on the patterns we've observed, we suggest that you keep these three things in mind.

Learn how to walk before you try to run.

As we've mentioned, an experienced programmer may attempt to implement a relatively complex challenge before addressing core Rust concepts. This is not surprising: it's reasonable for you to expect to hit the ground running, especially if you work as a software developer or you write programs for fun.

By the same token, it's likely that you're able to dedicate only a limited amount of time to learning Rust. Are you learning Rust in your free time, or evaluating it for work? For whatever reason, you might try and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

As such, we know that you might find it very frustrating to slow down and take tiny steps - instead of running a fast sprint or marathon. Nonetheless: take heart! Once you have developed an understanding of core concepts and fundamentals, you will take bigger steps and move on to complex projects with more ease and grace.

Appreciate the divergence.

Turing completeness is a "thing", but some programming languages are more suitable for certain tasks than others. Appreciate these different languages as the tools they are, with the specific features they offer and the things they do particularly effectively. Perhaps your task is to open a can of soup: you could certainly use a chainsaw to do this, but wouldn't you prefer a different tool?

The process of identifying the similarities between languages: this is only the beginning of a programmer's journey outside of their comfort zone. It is only the beginning of their discovery of the kind of tool they hold in their hands, and the kinds of problems that it is meant to solve.

The goal of the journey is to recognize and master the differences between tools. There would be no point in learning other languages, if they really were all the same!

Practice patience.

In the big picture, Rust is a very young language and has undergone a lot of changes in the last several years. Indeed, many of its features have grown less complicated since the early days of its existence. Rumors have persisted in regards to how hard it is to learn Rust, but it's very likely that these rumors are outdated and refer to a version of the language that no longer exists.

Throughout this post, we have reiterated the fact that time is inherent to the process of learning Rust. We refer to the fact that Rust is under active development, yes, but more importantly: we refer to the patience that we have noticed in folks who have succeeded in their journey. Give some time to your learning process, and you'll see that core concepts like Ownership and Borrowing deliver joy: they make it easy and comfortable to write programs that are memory-safe!

Stay tuned …

In the next part of this series, we will discuss one of Rust's unique philosophies: its aim to be practical. This is helpful not only in production, but also in the process of learning the language.

We hope you will read onwards! In the meantime, please consider signing up for our newsletter or enlisting us as trainers for your team.