Jill Jones


Jill Jones
Lives in: Ottawa

Since chatting with Jill Jones I have returned again and again to something she said in her interview that stuck with me because it was so simple and yet so profound.

Jill said, ‘Don’t be afraid to redefine everything.’ What amazing advice! Made even more so by the fact that it’s advice she takes seriously in her own life. Jill is a master of change, she is constantly redefining herself and her world and embracing the inevitable upside downs and inside outs of living.

When Jill identified that to progress professionally as a public servant in Canada she would need to learn French, she didn’t take classes, she left her job and her home and moved to France for fifteen months to become fluent. When Jill saw an opportunity to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and mingle with world’s leaders at the G-20 summit she pursued it single-mindedly and successfully. Time and time again Jill has chased down an opportunity and made it her own.

Jill doesn’t do things by halves and her story in a lesson in why we shouldn’t either.

Who is Jill Jones?

[Laughs] What a question! Who is Jill Jones? Jill Jones is a fun, dynamic, adventurous kinda woman. She loves to learn. Way beyond any sort of schooling institution. I mean she’s absolutely ecstatic about learning stuff! She’s a super reflector, she’s always thinking.

You know for someone who’s not in school I just have so many projects going on it is kind of laughable. Yeah, always thinking, working on something, always trying to improve myself as a person. All under the guise of trying to create a really balanced person with really strong values.

Can you tell us a bit more about these projects?

Yeah, these tend to be places where I want to put energy or that need some extra attention. For example, learning how to cook, managing my financial picture with greater precision, dabbling into photography, home decorating. My list is long, but I am a patient woman.

And learning languages as well? I know you had a kind of life change where you took off to France to learn French. Can you tell me a little bit about the lead up to your first adventure in France and what happened that made you decide to take off from your life? 

Well, I started my job fresh out of university, working in the federal government. One thing that was very clear to me was that as a public servant working in Canada you’re really not going to go anywhere professionally speaking if you don’t have a grasp of both languages (English and French).


Jill in France using her wall and post-it notes to study up on her french grammar

So I thought I would rather not wait and hit a ceiling and have to do this language training when I’m that much older. For most people (in the government) you have to pass a committee that will allow you to go on language training and the trend at that time, even though this sounds rather ineffective as I say it, was to send people who were closer to retirement. Here you are, you know, you want to give it your all and the message you get back is that you’re too risky, you’re too young, you’re going to move around, and we really only send people that have clocked in a good 25 years here.

Wow. That seems crazy.

Right. Rather ineffective. So I just thought, You know I could do this in a different way, it would probably be way more fun, it’d be quicker, it’d be less expensive for the department and it might just work. So I started doing some background research on types of leave available and there was basically a sabbatical where you could take leave without pay with no questions asked.

I think the notion of an experiment is key, as soon as something becomes an experiment you know that failure is a possibility, but so is success.

So I basically decided I was going to pitch this idea of going away for fifteen months and I was going to use the time for language training. My plan was to come back and basically sell myself to other departments and see what happens.

So I started looking around, I went to our Department of Foreign Affairs website and on it they had an ad for teaching assistants in France. I had about twelve business days to put this application together. That was insane! But five months later I got an email from saying, ‘You’re in!’ So I got the job, then I got a place to stay and everything just kind of took off from there. Then you land and you’re like, ‘Oh man, wow, this is crazy! You’re crazy!’

Yeah, but crazy good and fifteen months later you’re fluent in French!

Exactly. Crazy good because after the year of slugging it out I was leaving the country doing interviews in both languages.


Jill and her father, Frank, her favourite person in the world

How did you find teaching in France? As compared to your job back home?

Teaching in France was fun. I had to work hard to establish a rapport with teenagers knowing full well I didn’t speak their language at all. I had to find really non-traditional ways to engage with them. My favourite of which was a texting exercise where they had to decipher messages that native English speakers would send to each other but with chopped up words and acronyms (like LOL). Sounds easy now, but this was eight years ago. They really liked this and at the end they developed French text messages for me to learn. It was hilarious. Very memorable. There was no real comparison to my other job, which is what I love. I like my changes to be a complete 180 because that is where the magic happens. You can’t predict anything and I like that from time to time.

You know sometimes you do things and you don’t know if it’s going to pay you back but, my god, France has been paying me back in spades!

Did you ever doubt you could succeed in learning the language? Were you afraid at all taking this step into the unknown?

To be honest, no. I approached this as an experiment as I do most of my life. Pretty much every project I get up to starts with, ‘Hey, I wonder if I could…” and then the lab coat comes on and I start to set up the conditions for whatever it is I am trying to explore.

I think the notion of an experiment is key, as soon as something becomes an experiment you know that failure is a possibility, but so is success, and you recognise that to give yourself a shot at success, you need to build a stable infrastructure so that you can focus on what it is you came to do. You can’t be distracted by money, or what is happening at home or what will happen next. All of that is taking energy away from what you’re trying to do. My eye stays on the prize.

After learning French, you also added Spanish to your repertoire. What’s your favourite language now?

I haven’t explored them enough to be objective on this one, but I do have something that enchants me in each language.

In French, I am fascinated by how image driven the language is. How, for example, a bowtie is called a noeud papillon (butterfly knot) because of its shape. A paperclip is a trombone because it looks like the instrument. Lots of ‘a-ha’ moments with French.

In Spanish, I like, what I call, the leggo-like construction of words, which is the ability to click separate words together and make them one word. For example, ‘give it to me’ is damelo. One word. How fun.

Strangely, I have also developed a lot of respect for English. People often say it is an easy language to learn and this may be true from a grammatical perspective. However, what we do have, and what I appreciate tremendously, is the ability to make up words and have them ‘go viral’ and letting the evolution of the language be driven by the people rather than a stuffy academy making the call because, let’s be honest, ‘redonkulous’ is quite catchy.


Jill travelling with her camera in hand

Very catchy! When you went home from France things were different weren’t they? Did you tell me a while ago that you ended up having the opportunity to meet Michelle Obama? 

I didn’t get to meet her but I got to see her!

And that particular opportunity was a direct example of the fruits of your labour of having gone to France?

Yes. I’d been back maybe two years, it was 2010, they had announced that our Prime Minister was going to be having the G8/G20 summits in Toronto. There was an advertisement sent around for liaison officers by our Department of Foreign Affairs, a very difficult department to get into. I applied, they asked me to come in for an interview which was extremely intimidating and then I heard that I was chosen.

I’m the kid that survived!

I was already over the moon about the experience but then I got the email that said, ‘We’re going to assign you to the delegation of France.’ To this day it moves me so much! I just learned this language like a minute ago, and you think I’m good enough to hang out with like the heads of state in this language. You gotta be kidding! To be an Anglophone, to be given the delegation of France…and on a team of only three…what?! You’re just pinching yourself constantly!

You know sometimes you do things and you don’t know if it’s going to pay you back but, my god, France has been paying me back in spades! One thing leads to another you know.

I was assigned a spouse so it would have been Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. In the end she didn’t come so they didn’t use me but they still believed in my skills so that’s when I moved over to the Japanese delegation and I got to take care of the first lady of Japan. Equally awesome! It was probably the coolest professional thing I have done in my life.

I got to see everybody. Obama and Michelle together. Christine Lagarde which was huge for me! She is an elegant, elegant woman.

You’re just so grateful to be chosen, so grateful to be a part of it and you’re meeting and interacting with a lot of young, bright people, so you really feel like you’re coming home for the first time.


Jill (second from right) outside the Arena das Dunas Stadium before the Japan v. Greece game during the World Cup 2014 in Natal, Brazil, where she volunteered

So overall what is the public servant life like in Canada? Aside from that particular experience, has it been something you’ve enjoyed? An experience that you’ve found fulfilling?

I think it kind of depends. There’s 270,000 of us across the country so with just the sheer number you going to get a very varied perspective on that. I mean I’m certainly blessed to have the job. You know public sector jobs here and in other countries are looked at as these classic pillars of security and being well paid and having lots of opportunities and exposure.

I give it full marks for allowing me the flexibility to take on other opportunities and still maintain my employment, pay my bills, you know maintain a standard of living. For me, that’s the best part of the job.

Don’t be afraid to redefine everything!

The other stuff is more challenging. But, for me, I currently work in a job where I like the job, I love the people and I am currently working for probably the best boss I have ever met in my entire career. She’s just one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and I’m really lucky to be working for her.

What makes her so amazing?

Her people skills are off the charts! You know a lot of people will say I’m good with people or that I have a collaborative style but I mean this is somebody who no matter what email you send her, it always comes back positive, it always comes back like, ‘This is great and let’s think about this…’

A lot of times you can get into a place and you make some suggestions and you think, They’re really not feeling my initiative. So you start to dial it back a bit whereas she gives you a lot of breathing space to be able to bring your ideas to the table. She’s very family oriented herself so sometimes she’s gonna be there, sometimes she’s not gonna be there because she needs her space too. She’s extremely supportive, she’s like a big sister!

That’s so rare. 

Yeah, it’s really rare. What works about our team is that we’re committed to each other. Not that we’re not committed to the work, but we’re committed to each other and that is a totally different ball game when you can create that kind of environment.

And professionally your boss is top notch too?

Totally. I like where I am and I like being there because she makes the environment so lovely and I so know what the other side of the coin looks like so you kind of want to soak this up for as long as you can because it’s like a shooting star! You might not see this again in the next 30 years so I’m extremely grateful.


Jill (second from left) with some of her students in France

Absolutely! She sounds amazing. I did want to ask about what you remember from your childhood and those earlier formative years? What has Jill, the super-reflector, reflected about those? 

Um wow. You know Brené Brown? She’s a great thinker on concepts like shame, compassion, stuff like that. I started doing an e-course that she was putting on and I remember there was this particular assignment about creativity and she was talking about how a lot of people from their childhood basically have ‘art scars.’ You know, let’s say you wanted to be an artist when you were a kid and somebody said, ‘Well you’re not going to make any money off that.’

The assignment was to talk about these and then sort of reshape them in such a way that they come out more positive. Anyway she said something about how the creative adult is like the child that survived.

I like that.

Me too! And I thought, Yeah! I’m the kid that survived! Because I do still find that I have my creative outlets. They don’t come out in the classic ways like producing or performing art but it’s still there. I have no apprehension about creating. I think that all these side projects of mine are pure creation! You’re trying to re-engage with that part of yourself that doesn’t necessarily have space to breath and jump and run and do all the things that it’s used to do. So for me all these projects are allowing my creativity to flow and letting my inner child come out and play.

I think there’s just some really encrusted ideas about what a man is that I think is both detrimental to men and detrimental to women.

You’ve always been close to your father, can you tell us a bit about your relationship with him? What makes him so special?

I just adore my dad. I think the unique thing that we have is a sense of respect for the evolution of our relationship. I have moved from little girl to long-standing confidant and that is not something I think a lot of children can say. I have moved from being this delicate person that was shielded from the tougher side of life to being the person he calls to the table to share his feelings and experiences with. Instead of being protected from the conversation you are invited to partake in that conversation. I am humbled by that and take that very seriously.

I feel a bit like I have been able to have moments where I could kind of step outside myself and see the sacrifices both him and my mother had made and have felt overwhelmed by their selflessness ever since. I try to give credence to that by giving back to them any way that I can.


Jill standing on the actual equator in Kenya, during a volunteer trip with the organisation Developing World Connections

I also think we understand each other. We may not always agree, but we get each other. As a young girl, I loathed how similar we were, but there was a moment when I just stopped fighting it and went with the flow and embraced our similarities. We love music, dancing, socialising, a good drink and quality works—that is, furniture, nice cars, clothing or a great James Bond film. I grew up watching both Fashion Television and 60 minutes with him so he represents a very dynamic person who can talk to you about anything. Politics to Prada – he is a disntguished gentleman.

He is also the smartest person I know and I continue to be impressed when he brings something to the table that you would expect most parents not to know anything about. A master change agent, he has been through some very difficult moments, but he handles them all with such grace. He is a man’s man, but after the passing of my mother, he became Mr Mom and has been expanding his repertoire of skills in the delicate minefield of a young woman’s emotions and for the most part, he does pretty well.

You’re very lucky to have someone like him in your life, like a kindred spirit. He sounds wonderful. What I’d love to hear from you now is what kind of general advice you would have for our readers about life, coming from you and your perspective?

I love it! So many things you could say here. I would probably say the most important thing and something that guides me is: Don’t be afraid to redefine everything!

I don’t care what it is! If it doesn’t work for you, redefine it so that it does. There are no rules that say you cannot do that, so do it. It absolves you from having to say, ‘Well this doesn’t work for me.’ Ok, what would make it work for you? I mean that in all spheres—in the way that you define your relationships, in the way that you define balance for your life, in the way that you define your presentation of self. Don’t be afraid to redefine all that at will because who says you can’t?

Oh Jill! Such wonderful advice! So the last thing is, what should we talk more about?

One thing? You know what, I would have to say off the top of my head…redefining masculinity. I think it’s holding us back in a lot of ways. I think everything, no matter what it is, needs to evolve and become current. I think there’s just some really encrusted ideas about what a man is that I think is both detrimental to men and detrimental to women.

And I think if men understood what I was saying before that you can just redefine it, I just think we would relate to each other much better instead of them feeling shackled by, ‘I can’t cry, I can’t show weakness, I can’t share my feelings.’ I think if we could open up that conversation about masculinity and redefine it, I just think we’d see some amazing things happen.

I think so too! Thank-you so much Jill Jones!


Jill, luminous and happy

Things I Love

My Bobo (pet name for my father)

My father is my everything. He is my best friend, my ‘Mr Mom’, my thesaurus, my wikipedia, my New York Times, my Economist, my best friend and my soft place to fall. I love him ridiculously with all that I have.

Shakin' it

Music is a sweet indulgence for me and I feel like I can absorb it on levels that I can’t quite fully understand, but I don’t question that, I just get up and shake it, whenever and however I feel like. It is therapy for the soul.

Investing in experiences

Sorry ladies, but Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, just don’t do it for me. For as long as I can remember, the choice between where to put my money and energy has been simple. Would I rather have an expensive beautiful Louis bag or would I rather go to brunch in Park Slope with my homies in New York a short flight away? Building and maintaining my relationships all over the world wins out. Every. Single.Time.

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