Nov. 17, 2022

From a Professional Poker Player to helping athletes incorporate science-based mental skills with Karina Karagaeva

From a Professional Poker Player to helping athletes incorporate science-based mental skills with Karina Karagaeva

She’s a mindset coach for top poker players throughout the world. She has been a meditation teacher for 7+ years, is an advisor to several tech startups, and has experience in corporate training having worked at companies such as IBM, Apple, Siemens, and AIG. Now, Karina Karagaeva’s startup, Mindset Design, is a platform that aims to help athletes incorporate science-based mental skills training into their routine.

If you like to compete and are looking for tips to improve your mental game, this is the episode for you.

No. of employees: 3

Projected revenue for 2022: 15,000 Euro

Topics we get into:

  • Why did you study to be a professional poker player?
  • From a mindfulness perspective, what strategies and techniques did you enact while playing?
  • What does the buyers journey look like for a Mindset Design potential client?
  • Can players access the platform on their own time?
  • How would you assess whether or not this platform is having a positive impact?
  • You are licensed as a neuro-agility practitioner. What is this?
  • How has your mindset and life different than what it was like ten years ago?
  • What would you recommend to athletes or anyone who likes to compete?
  • What is one of the things a tennis player, poker player, or anyone who discovers your platform, really likes about it?
  • Is the platform available outside of Europe?
  • Instead of a fear of failure, you have a fear of ________?

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Past Guests:
Past guests on Innovators Can Laugh include Yannik Veys, Ovi Negrean, Arnaud Belinga, Csaba Zajdó, Dagobert Renouf, Andrei Zinkevich, Viktorija Cijunskyte, Lukas Kaminskis, Pija Indriunaite, Monika Paule, PhD, Vytautas Zabulis, Leon van der Laan, Ieva Vaitkevičiūtė.
Additional episodes you might enjoy:
#55 Yannik Veys - From creating the Uber for service professionals to growing Hypefury
#53 Tzvete Doncheva - Overcoming barriers to get into a VC with Tzvete Doncheva
#50 V...


Hey, you're listening to Innovators Can laugh, the Fun Startup podcast. I'm your host, Eric. No, on ico. We interview an innovative entrepreneur in the European tech startup scene every week. My goal is to have my guests share their wisdom while having a little fun in the process.

Now, let's dive. My guest today is Bulgarian startup founder Karina Ka gava, founder of Mindset Design. Karina's experience is primarily in corporate training, having worked at companies such as ibm, Apple, Siemens, and aig. She is a mindset coach for top poker players. Throughout the world. She's been a meditation teacher for seven plus years.

She herself is a professional poker player. She also graduated from the Founder Institute in London and is an advisor to several tech startups. Her startup is a platform that aims to help athletes. Incorporate science-based mental skills training into their routine. Karina, pleasure to have you Have you here on Innovators Collab.

How you doing today? Oh, I'm really great here in SoFi. It's a beautiful day and I just had a call with my co-founder. So we are really into that momentum now with fundraising and we build, building the product that we are so excited about. So yeah, a great day. Great. I'm excited to jump into there. Before we get into there, I, you know, we were just chatting earlier and I'm trying to get my son into sports.

He does a little bit of tennis he's also doing some jujitsu and I started taking him to a stadium once a week where there is a coach who leads these kids and a group of exercises. Like running, jumping and things like that. And the duration of the program is about an hour long. But when I took him for the first time, 40 minutes into the program, he's looking at me and he's got this face that's filled with unhappiness.

He doesn't wanna be there. And he comes over to me and he says, Daddy, I'm tired and I wanna go home. I tell him that it's almost sober and that he could finish the exercises. So disappointingly, he goes back and he finish, finishes the other program with the other kids. But we're going back to this track later today, and so I'm wondering what advice do you have for me as a parent that I can tell him before he does those exercises?

Mm. Yeah. Well, actually, I will answer your question a bit differently here and I'll start with what inspires us. And I believe that those kids that are more ambitious, you know, and more into sports, deserve to have any support that, you know, will make them, first of all, feel good with what they they're doing, and then become successful in the, you know, in the desired direction, desired sport.

So for parents, Completely understand that I empathize with, you know, with your willing, your will to, to support your kids, you know, and to provide the best environment for them as well. And in this particular situation, it's about showing that kids that he or she can achieve, you know, much more by being supportive and also communicate a lot with them because they actually struggle a lot with, with some challenging things that are challenging even for grownups.

You know, they're only 3, 4, 5, 6 years old kids and it's really has. It's really inspiring for me to see them doing that extra effort while the rest of the kids are just scrolling through TikTok and you know, being normal kid in 2022. So the coaches are very important in that whole process. The communication between the parents and the coaches is very important.

And first of all, to recognize the needs of the kids and to acknowledge the fact that they are tired, disappointed that they struggle, but then to be complet. Confident view as a parent that your kid can achieve many, many great successes and can actually unlock hidden potential. And because kids really resonate on the same energy level, on the same vibration, on the same emotion, like the grown up, if you feel deep within you that this kid is able to do more, then they.

They will also feel that in a way, you know, if you see them like that, they will see themselves like that. Yeah. Oh, I know. He's able to do more. He's the type of kid that wears other kids out.

Yeah. Other parents are like, Oh, have Aer. Yeah. Other parents are like, Wow, your kids got a lot of energy. And I'm like, Oh yeah. I know. That's why I'm bringing him here. Mm. Yeah. Sore. Okay. Well thanks for that. I'll be very supportive and I will continue to communicate with him and also try to communicate more with the coaches here.

I was researching you and I read that you used to be a poker player yourself. I am very curious as to how you got into poker and why. Mm. Actually, when we first started the company mindset design, we wanted to help high achievers in, you know, a variety of of domains to. Work with their mental skills and to build stronger mentality.

So at first, actually, it was more a coincidence that we started working with poker players because we happened to know a lot of them. They know our friends in our community was full of those people, and we talk about the project and they were like, Well, this is something that we need. So we basically started building the product around those people because they had very clearly defined me.

So I started myself also exploring the, you know, the poker journey. Actually to be a poker player is a very lonely and very, very, very harsh, you know, professional domain. And I, I talk about people that they basically play poker like a nine to five job. They have a certain amount of hours they have to spend on a daily basis.

They learn a lot. They always, you know, continue, evolve and grow as, as players and. They are not at all, some people that just randomly click here and there. I mean, the strategy and the mess behind poker, if you wanna play it professionally, actually it's pretty hard, . So I wanted to understand better their journey and the way they, they struggle on a daily basis with decisions sometimes, you know, worth several thousand dollars, you know, and, and it's it's something that I wanted to experience for myself so that I can build a product that will help them.

And it turned out to be a good strategy because I now understand. A very, you know, clear, deep perspective in myself. What is to be everybody knowing their shoes. Okay. I read somewhere that women who are professional poker players, the percentage, I think it's very small, maybe even less than 5%. And so , did you, did you plan any tournaments during your research and trying, you know, the time that you're trying to get a better understanding of what a poker player goes through, were you , did you play in any tournaments?

And if so, what was that? Experience, like re mm-hmm. . I explore the poker game more from the online playing perspective because for people that play professionally, this is the more lucrative, you know, approach. And yeah, sometimes when they go to, and they, they visit life tournaments, but mostly they play online.

So yeah, online tournaments, of course. But the thing here is that, you know, you see sorts of like different harassment things when you are female. Also my nickname was clearly, you know, showing that I'm a female. And you see how people react to you, what are the comments, you know, how they treat you. So definitely it's a pretty aggressive and pretty intense environment in which a woman doesn't really feel comfortable.

So if you are a woman in this industry, you have to overcome this and be ready to, to. Be attacked on much more, you know, in a much more complex way compared to to a man. Did you find that you yourself, were having to put into practice some of the things that you teach during? Oh yeah, Definitely.

Definitely. So what was That was actually one of my goals. Yeah. To test it for myself as well. So what were some of those tactics and strategies that you, you tried for yourself from a mind mindfulness perspective? So, for example, some breathing techniques, because the, the whole thing about poker mentality is not to let the so-called tilt state of mind to overcome your decision.

So not to have emotional decision making process, but to remain completely rational, you know, with clear mind, with clear thought. So for example, when you have a, let's say, bad situation, you know, or a very. Session. If you lose your temper, if you lose, you know, if you become angry, if you activate revenge tilt, or if you do, you know, that emotional thing, actually you lose a lot of money.

So you can control this or balance this with some breathing technique with, you know, regularly making a short pauses. For example, drinking enough water, which is kind of obvious, but it helps your brain to remain in that highly, you know, rational mulch. You know, if you are dehydrated, that's not possible.

A lot of tricks here and there, and it's about building the whole lifestyle that you wanna have around, you know, the goal of being a really productive professional poker player. So it's a combination and the compound effect of small actions, you know, performed with great consist. That will give you that different mindset in different mental state.

I wish I met you about two years ago because what you were just describing, although I'm not a professional poker player, about 18 months ago, I was doing a lot of stock trading and a lot of the trading was day to day trading. And I found myself in a position where it's one of those things where you're more upset because you lost something than if you had gained something.

And I see a trade that I made and oh wow, I lost a lot of money and I'm more upset at myself because I could have put it somewhere else and I could have made more money. And so you end up making decisions based on emotion, and it was just sort of a down. Spiral from there. So in addition to being maybe poker players, you probably have another segment you never thought about, which are traders

Yes, Yes, absolutely. That actually they were also in our pipeline and we call, actually we, we have a special term that we use in the company, cognitive athletes, because poker players, we consider them also as athlete and then traders, salespeople, professional gamers as well, because all of them are using their, you know, mental capacity, intellectual.

To, to perform their job. But then at some point, you know, already from, from the conversation that we had previously, that we realized that we can do the same work and we can provide the same product and the same value to physical athletes, you know, to people that perform professionally in, in professional sport.

And that's why we, we made that change. I mean, we still work with poker players, but that's. Like in the background, and it's not, it's no longer a focus in the company. And now we switch to tennis players because we realize that in any individual sport, in an individual competitive endeavor, the mentality is key, first of all.

And the pressure on, you know, on, on players is the same. So that's the reason why we, we. Decided to switch a little bit the segment, and that's why we, we work now with tennis players only to discover actually that they have the same patterns, same challenges, you know, the same dynamics. Okay, so how is this going to work?

Let's say you have an interested buyer and he comes to the platform and he wants to, you know, try the platform. Formal. Is there gonna be like a free, you know, I don't know, a free 30 day session? I mean, I'm, I'm coming from like a SaaS background, e-commerce background, so I'm just wondering mm-hmm. , what would a potential shopper have to go through in order to be testing the platform and then mm-hmm.

there are different packages. That sounds like a stupid question, but I'm just wondering. Mm. What's that experience gonna look like? No, Absolutely reasonable. No, no, it's absolutely reasonable. Actually, right now with tennis academies, we work into B to B to C model because we need the strong endorsement and supports from tennis coaches because our product basically empowers them to implement mental skills exercises in their regular training routine.

So for example, if you are a tennis player, if you want to practice your forehand, Any tennis coach knows how to do that. But if you want to practice your forehand with, you know, in a combination with a mental skill, that's something a bit, you know, more complex. And so we provide tennis exercises, you know, tennis drills on court and off court for those tennis coaches to include mental skills in their regular routine.

So for example, how you train your motivation while you train your forehand. And that's the unique thing about the product. So we basically empower those cultures to perform those exercises. And that's the reason why if you are. You know, potential client, you are probably a tennis coach or a tennis academy owner.

So you go to this website and you request, you know, meeting with us. So we have this initial conversation with you, and we are still in that process where we onboard, you know, relatively slowly academies because we want to know them. We want to have those close connection with them, and you. Claim. For example, you can claim access to our platform for the kids that you have in your academy.

So this could be 10 kids, 20, 50 depends on, you know, the size of the academy. And when you do that, players can have their own login. Coaches can have their own login and parent as well. Because in the tennis industry, we address the needs of those three different stakeholders. We have this famous saying in the company that if you wanna.

A tennis player, you need a village. You know, it takes a village to raise a tennis player. So we provide value to coaches by giving them the exercises. We provide value to players, you know, cuz they also have assignments here and there. They have ways to share about their success on the platform and we inform parents.

About the progress of their kids because they want, you know, visibility on that. So with these kids, if they're using the platform, would they use the platform in, in conjunction with their coach, like during the same time? Or would they be able to access the platform in their own home on their own time?

They can access on their own home. Because sometimes they have some tasks they, they have to perform. You. Outside of the court? You know, it depends. We basically have a variety of exercises and that's the one of the key, I would say, competitive advantages because we have a very rich content that is enough for now for more than two years of seasonal training.

You know, when it's really a lot of exercises in a lot of things, covering the seven G mental skills for, for. You know, and, and we have plenty of different training drills and training routines that we are, we have created. So, Okay. A lot ofties on, on the platform. Okay. So now my next question is, is like how would you access whether or not this platform is making an impact now as an adult?

I can, I could probably assess whether or not it's, it, I'm benefiting from it. Mm-hmm. , I know that, hey, recently I'm less. And one of the things that contributed to that is I got off Twitter. Mm-hmm. and I used to be on Twitter, but it was, I was probably on there at least five hours a week. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of great people on Twitter.

Some of my guests I met through Twitter, but it was one of those things that. It wasn't a necessity and it was causing me more stress because I had less time to spend with my family and, and things like that. But if I, as a parent though, if my kid is on the platform, what are, what are some things that I could look for to find out whether or not he's benefiting from it?

I'll give you a very specific example here because first of all, the problem is that there is this myth that mental skills are very abstract and you cannot really measure them or see them. Well, actually, one of the mental skills is to remain motivated. For example, after having. You know, a bad match or, you know, after carry a bad game.

Now the motivation is something that you can see even in the body posture of the player. You know, when a player steps into the court, whether he or she's motivated, confident, calm, you know, we see it in the body language and we know that already, right? So now if you want to measure the progress of this kid after spending, for example, Two, three weeks working specifically on that skill.

You can compare how they enter the court, how they perform, and how they act when they find themselves in a tough moment from the match, you know? Yeah. Because you see, I mean, you have a kid, you know how it, how it works when, when the kid is stressed or when he or she just refuses to continue the match on, you know, on positive note, it's the shoulders that fall down.

It's like the, even the eyes, you know, they started looking on the ground instead of looking around the. They are just so disappointed and they, they just lost the match before the match ends, which is, Yeah, yeah. Which is something that you can see, right? Yeah. Yeah. So we observe the behavior, you know, we, we literally have those feedback forms from parents and from coaches to compare.

Before and after using our tools, we also have the objective results because risky, for example, one of our kids, he didn't have any significant wins for the past months, you know, during the tournaments here in Bulgaria, in the summer lately, he just annihilated everybody in one international tournament and for the first time he told us, You know what, I think I just succeeded, you know, to to, to win over my own mind, you know, to win over myself.

And that's the moment when you realize that those. Went through this transformation on a later stage, we plan to have a partnership with the university, with academia, where we can literally observe those kids with fmri, with technologies that will prove in another way, not only, you know, with obvious evidence, but also with something like that, with how their brain function, how they react, and what is the new patterns that are formed in their brains.

Because what we are doing actually is based on the neurosciences behind mental skills improvement. So literally their. Are changing colon physiological level, and we want to measure that. But that's you know, a little bit ahead of us. Yeah. Yeah. No, I was, I'm so excited. I'm so excited for, you know, for my son to just, you know, have him try this, the exercises on the platform, get him into it and, and you know, the, the body language says so much.

I'll never forget, I think it was 2010 I was watching a tennis match between a doll and Federer. Federa was my, my hero. I love the way he plays so gracefully. Makes it look so easy. And the the commentator was also a sports psychologist and he was making the comment that when Federa plays na doll, it's the only time that you see Federa looking down.

Mm-hmm. As he's walking on the court. Mm-hmm. and just like you said, shoulders are drooped. Mm-hmm. , he just does not look like he's having a good time. He's not himself. Yeah. And he would, Nada was the only player that could really do that to him. And you could, you can notice it was noticeable. And so I, you know, when you say, when you look at your kids, you know, look at the body, the body language, because that, that says so much.

Okay. Yeah. Now, I also noticed that you have a certification listed on LinkedIn as a neuro agility practitioner from Neurolink. Yes. What is that? Mm-hmm. , Karina. Neuro. That's one of very impressive technology that thanks to a self-assessment that you can do, which takes around 90. 120 minutes to take. We can pretty precisely measure the way your brain functions.

Like what are the active centers? What are the predominant hemispheres, for example, And based on that to recommend ways to improve your brain brain functionality. So it's a way for me to assess both corporate leaders that I'm working with, but also pace players, poker players who tested with a variety of groups of people to see how for them.

So for example, if you know for yourself that you have a predominant. You know that your frontal lobe, for example, is, is much more active compared to other parts of your brain. You have to, for example, change a little bit your diet or be aware in a certain publication situations that you have a specific behavior.

So it's like raising your awareness. What is your brain design? That's what neuro neur is. And also it shows you ways to improve communication with other people because you see how different they are for me. Like one in the same information can be interpretable, you know, in. One way from you and in a completely different way from your life, partner, business partner, et cetera.

So it's about how our braids are wired, and it's a very interesting assessment that, you know, literally reveals how you understand, accept, and process information. Okay. So it's, it's one of the ways that we, you know, approach this, this mental skills training in a scientific way because it's pure neuroscience.

Okay. Having more having, having taken this course, having, you know, taught meditation, become a professional poker player, you know, in the process of, of creating and, and launching, you know, your startup here, how has your mindset and approach to life changed from 10 years ago to what your life is? Is like today.

It could just be from maybe your daily routine or maybe something that you do once a year. How is your life different 10 years ago to what it is today, based on what you've been going through? Yeah. Well, I can see that 10 years ago I was way more attached to my personality, so I thought that I am a certain character, a certain set of, you know, yeah, set of skills, set of preferences, you know, in which time I realized that our identities are much more liquids.

You know, fixed and, and stable, then we think. So I changed so many roles and so many profiles and so many identities, you know, throughout the year. So I'm no longer attached to being this specific person. So that's the reason why even in my signature in my email, it says, You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.

And it's quote by Alan Watts. And I think that it captures the freedom, you know, of being completely different at any given moment if you want to, because we are not limited to. You know, the same person we were five minutes ago. So I, you know, embrace new roles and I embrace new, new faces, new masks if you want whenever I want to now.

And I'm much more flexible and much more open to that. And I think I'm much more free because of that, because I no longer, you know, I'm no longer a slave of my identity. I'm the master of it, . It's just, it's, it was just a very big, big eyeopening for me to, to realize that. So I think that's the, that's the main difference.

Okay. Now, some of these skills that you've acquired from these past, you know, the past 10 years or whatever what would you recommend to other athletes or people just who, who just like to compete? Well, I know earlier in the show you, you, you said that poker players, some of the things that you recommend are like, you know, drinking a lot of water because that does have an impact or, you know, practice deep breathing.

Anything else that you would like to share? Sure. Well, I would definitely recommend people to look in unusual places for their improvement because if you want to have that critical advantage, if you are a competitive you know player, if you are competitive professional, you know, it can be even in a corporate sense of the word you, you have to find a unique strategy, you know, to build that competitive edge.

And if you follow everybody else, if you do the same exercises, if you have the same lifestyle, obviously will have the same result. And I would say that people very often try to find shortcuts You. Five easy steps to do this and that, you know what? It's really competitive advantage. Do the work that takes time and effort and it takes 10 years in that one month because this is what could really give you an advantage.

And I think in my humble opinion, that the inner work is also something that many people, you know, avoid because they think it, you know, you can have these tactics, you can have these tools, you can have this and that. You can have those. Hacks of the system. Well, actually the real hack is to choose the road less travel.

You know, the one that requires you facing your ego, facing your limitations, spending years before seeing really big results. You know, be patient with that. Those are the real challenges. You know, if you do something competitive and if you keep working, you know, on when yourself and you stop looking for shortcuts, then you really have a competitive advantage because you have a different mindset.

You just, you are here for the long term. That's what makes you different. I love it. I love it. It reminds me of a saying that I heard. I think it was Leonard DaVinci used to just say over and over again, and it was, I think it was Oto Regor. I think the translation was something like, you know, Learn to love the grind.

Mm, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So I have some personality questions for you in just a second, but one last question. When a poker player, tennis player, or whoever discovers your platform and starts using it, what is one of the things that they really love about it? Hmm. Actually it different for different people, but what I see as a pattern that comes along is that they say, Oh, I saw I am.

So weird with my challenges, with my problems, and it turned out that everybody had them like, yeah, I mean obviously you're not, I mean, you are special, but you're not unique with, you know, in your challenges. So one of the things they appreciate is that they enter a community of people that has similar ambitions, similar struggles, and you know, they feel at last, at home.

Because competitive players in any domain, they're really lonely. It's very hard for them to explain to their close friends, relatives, you. The difficulties of their, of their domain. And it's valid for public layers, especially because there is a lot of cliches, you know, a lot of stigma around what they're doing, which is, you know, mostly because of the ignorance of the people.

But anyways, they feel lonely. They, they don't have many people to share their journey with or that was one of the things. And we tennis first as well. I mean, imagine being a 13 years. Girl and she's traveling alone to go to a tournament in another country. You know, spending a lot of the money of the, of, of her parents, you know, and trying to achieve something, come back with nothing, you know, And doing that for several years, it's a pretty lonely long trip.

And what we give them is that sense of belonging, you know, to belong to a community of people that go on the same heroic fest because. It's exceptional. No, it's, it's extraordinary. And that's one of the things for sure. And also I think that what gives them confidence and somehow it calms them down, is the fact that working with your mental skills and emotional, you know, states is actually a process with the right tools and with the right support.

This is something that you can really influence. You know, you can influence that big time and so they feel much more comfort. Working on that now, when they see the exercises, when they see that there is a procedure behind it, and it's not something abstract that they will never solve, you know, when they see the steps, it's like, okay, there is a way out of my, you know, strong emotional state.

You know, my, my mental weaknesses. I think that those are the big confines. All right. All right. Is the platform available for anybody who wants to use this outside of Europe, or is it mostly just Europe? Exclusively right now. Right now actually we are. Doing a very, I would say, slow sales process because we first of all onboard academies from Bulgaria.

The next markets would be Serbia, Romania, and then we will jump actually directly the other side of the ocean in the US where we have local partners and local sales representatives because we want to attack this market and, and see how they will react to this because it's a totally different ball game compared to Europe and we are curious to, to explore that opportunity.

So very soon I would. In less than three months platform will be available for users in the us, for example. Yeah. All right. Okay. Now for some fun questions for you. First question, what is a favorite TV show that you can watch again and again? Karina favorite TV show? Oh, here is a disclaimer. I don't watch a lot of TV , but I really like some SCI side mini series, for example, by Netflix.

Love Dead, and. This is something really inspiring for me because it gives a perspective about a potential development of the society we are living in currently. I really like, maybe also I don't know if it's a TV show. It's actually a movie, but again, it's it's name, it's Mr. Nobody where exactly. You see how like different scenarios in your life have equal value and, and that any decision actually is the right decision.

So it's a very. Time traveling even, you know, in a movie. So yeah, those are the first things that pop to mind. Okay. Next question for you, it's a fill in the blank question. Instead of a fear of failure, you have a fear of blank. Instead of fear of failure, you have a fear of, Hmm. You, you, you specifically carina me specifically?

Yeah. Hmm. I think I have more fear of lone. Because it's a, something that I, I try to crack. I mean, I try to find a way to find my tribe and because I change many roles and I change many ways, I'm constantly the new lady in the room and in , it's a bit exhausting, you know, to be always the newbie and to be the one that, you know, wants, still work on building new relationships in a new industry.

And I guess I'm, I'm, sometimes I feel I'm more attached. Things that I'm, I'm doing or that I was doing, and sometimes I have to really push myself to go and do something new even harder because I know that again, this will be, you know, situation where I'll be the only one that knows nobody in the room. , I guess that's it.

Yeah. . Okay. Rina, it's been a pleasure having you on this show. Thank you so much for for joining me on Innovators. Come up. Oh, same here. Thanks, Eric. Actually, your questions helped me. Some part of my own thoughts because when, when you don't say it out loud, sometimes you don't know what you really think about certain questions.

So thanks a lot for that. Yeah, my pleasure. For everybody listening, if you enjoy anything, what you just heard, you're going to love what I'm about to tell you. If you go online to innovators can laugh dot sub and hit the subscribe button end. You'll be added to an email list where I add exclusive content related to the.

That's where I share my key takeaways from each episode and my highlights and action steps that you can do to implement the advice into action. And I also share some real life breakdowns of campaigns that I'm seeing and working on. Okay, thanks for everybody listening. Until next week, keep hustling out there and take care of yourself.