I'm just going to give it to you straight:
The way to get ahead is to do exactly what your employer asks of you. And then some.
I first learned this the hard way back in 1993 on a trading floor in Washington, DC. I could work like a machine, but I was still young (read: kinda arrogant and immature) and didn't realize that it wasn't always appropriate for me to give my input on every single item on the 'to do' list.
But don't think of JPN as a jerk - he isn't - and we're still friends today. I was the jerk in this story.
I didn't really understand it until I owned my own company, and my financial livelihood and professional reputation counted on employees being able to step up to the plate and fulfill a client's wishes. On non-negotiable deadlines.
I acquired this wisdom the hard way, but I'd like to share it with you for free.
Here is my advice:
1) From 9 to 5, put your own interests (and your personal appointments, cell phone, and PDA) aside. Spend your time doing the best job you can, checking things off the 'to do' list your boss has given you. You should do this whether you are the trading floor assistant or Vice President of the company.
2) You can give input when you have truly gained the experience and skills that you need to go off on your own with clients, the trust of your employers in hand.
3) Assume there is something to be learned by every task, no matter how menial. Humility, patience and respect might be just what you need.
Related life lessons?
"Treat your boss like a boss first, and a friend second. And maybe not a friend at all."
Also - "No matter how smart and successful you are, you will still find yourself standing in front of a photocopier on a regular basis. Get over it."
(photo credit: Flickr user: danielbeunza)