Lessons from “Knock-out Pneumonia”


by Grace Ueng,  Savvy Growth

I was looking forward to presenting my Happiness talk to the Harvard Club. It was fitting as my work was informed by the most popular Harvard course of all time. Then, it hit me…knock-out pneumonia.

A client warned me it knocked him out for 6 weeks. And I was only 2 weeks into it. I cancelled my talk and focused on getting well. Not easy given all nighters of no sleep – not working, but hacking. My 85 year old father was concerned, having read about how folks his age die from pneumonia.

What did “knock-out pneumonia” teach me?

Seek truth, not comfort – make real change!
The CEO of a client told me years ago, “I seek truth, not comfort.” While I’ve always sought to deliver truth, knock-out pneumonia “let it rip.”

Given my constant hacking, I did not mince words. Under the influence of pneumonia, one day in a critical meeting, I found myself powerfully sharing a recommendation that everyone else had been too fearful to utter. A client followed up with a note entitled My Most Sincere Thanks:

“Thank you for all you do and have done for us. I know working for us has been a difficult and stressful ordeal for you, unrelenting even in time of illness.

I greatly appreciated your brave counsel and advice today. I recognize how hard it is to say what needs to be said, particularly when it is not what people want to hear.”

Within a very few days, titanic changes took place. Pneumonia gave me the power to say in one short breath the synthesis of what I had been observing at the client for a long period of time. My “brave counsel” was listened to, the CEO made dramatic changes setting strategic direction on the right course.


Prioritize – what is the most important 1 or 2 things I must do today?
Given my extremely low energy, I could only muster completing the highest priority, highest impact items. I realized that long to-do lists are not helpful. Short lists are best. Focus is king. Less available time forces focus and prioritization to what is truly important. How can you really move the dial?

Exhausted, I thought, I’m not going to finish writing my book. A labor of love poring out my heart in sharing stories of my fears and failures. All to inspire readers that they too can climb any mountain. I am so behind with all my work, I don’t have the energy to continue writing. This mindset was not like Grace, the usually ebullient, high energy, savvy consultant and coach! And one who has been steeped in positive psychology.

Knock-out pneumonia can do a number on you…

When well, do good!
5 weeks into my pneumonia journey, in late March, my sponsor from General Mills, where I worked straight out of Harvard Business School, wrote back:

“My fault Grace on this request! Do you have availability either on 4/11 or 4/13? Hopefully you are not done with the book yet. ?”

We had scheduled time months earlier for an interview. A key member of the General Mills leadership team, Marc oversaw the launch of new lines of business, so was an ideal interview for ‘climbing the mountain’ of entrepreneurship within a Fortune 500 environment. On the date of our scheduled call, my mom was hospitalized, so I had to ask to postpone.

Weeks later, I wrote to reschedule. Unlike Marc, he was delayed in responding. He wrote back just as I was thinking it didn’t make sense for me to continue my book given my lethargy.

I decided this was a sign that I should continue. And indeed, I am.


During the 6 weeks of  what I labeled as “knock-out pneumonia,”  I kept reminding myself of Frederick Nietzsche’s words, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  I vowed that I would have an even stronger bias for action when finally well.  I am focusing now on taking my shots and climbing my mountains. I’m dedicating time each day to completion of Project Peak!


About the Author
I founded Savvy Marketing Group in 2003 and rebranded to Savvy Growth last year to reflect our management consulting & executive and team coaching services, in addition to our long standing marketing services. Our passion is working closely with our clients as long term partners to help you reach your goals. Nothing makes us happier than having you come back to say thank you, that we made a significant impact on your business!

We also speak and give workshops on Project Peak – inspiring team members to climb their mountains.