My younger cousin has always been wise beyond his years, and it’s no surprise that he’s now a senior executive at one of the world’s most respected financial institutions. He recently shared some advice that can help you get ahead in your career and in life.

Why I always listen to my younger cousin

I remember one of our family visits to Asia when he was just nine years old. He was already giving the rest of us older cousins great advice: the best route to get to the restaurant, the best brand of camera to buy, the pitfalls to avoid in order for us visitors to get around safely.

And living with our grandfather, a man of the highest integrity, my cousin couldn’t help but learn to “do the right thing” even when it’s inconvenient. As we would say back in New Jersey, “the kid has his head screwed on straight”.

Fast forward to my recent trip to China. Over lunch, I asked my cousin what career advice he gives to the younger people coming up the ranks.

After thinking for a moment, he said the following three things.

Here’s his best career advice

1. Don’t be a “BMW” – which stands for “Bitch, Moan and Whine”

“I’m always surprised that so many people come into my office simply to complain. It doesn’t reflect well on them.”

I know just what he means. In fact, it’s a real negative as far as your career is concerned.

There's downside to being a BMW. Imagine you’re the big boss (and maybe you are) and some of your people treat you like the complaints department. They vent their negative energy on you. Sure, the proverbial buck stops with you. And yes, you have the power to make more decisions than many others do. But you’re not a magician. Yet they seem to expect you to wave your wand and make their problems disappear.

You’re amazed at how self-absorbed people can be. Don’t they realize you’re forming impressions about who is an up and coming leader, and who is not? What does that tell you about those people?

Among other things, this comes across as having a sense of entitlement. It implies a learned helplessness – a lack of recognition that they can and do have the ability to make things happen or at least influence them. And you certainly won’t want to spend extra time with them or recommend them for bigger responsibilities.

In fact, this BMW behavior is so prevalent in organizations that another leader I respect has instituted a policy: “no complaining without a solution”.

On the other hand, there's significant upside when you're not a BMW. So if you have a complaint, do your homework before you voice it. Have a proposed solution or set of solutions, and use positive words. Taking a glass half full approach will stand you in much better stead. You’ll set yourself apart from others. And you’re more likely to get what you want.

2. Do what you love, love what you do

“Life is short. You have to enjoy your work.”

I have to agree.

What I like best about this piece of advice is that it you can interpret it in several different ways, and one of them is sure to be helpful.

You can focus on the first part of the advice and interpret this one as “follow your passion,” which is great advice if you actually know what your passion is. But for those of us who don't know, it’s also somewhat terrifying. As in, “oh no! I’m the only person who doesn’t have a passion!”

In that case, you can focus on the second part, which encourages us to find enjoyment and reward in what we are doing. Which doesn’t require knowing what you love, but helps us on the road to finding what we love through experimentation. As you can tell, this is the one that helps me most.

And of course, there’s the truism that if you’re doing what you love, you’re going to enjoy what you do. And who can argue with that?

Underlying this advice is that you have to take ownership of your career. It’s up to each of us to identify what we love even if means experimenting and kissing lots of frogs to find it. And then it’s about putting ourselves in a position to keep learning and growing. Careers aren’t static “set and forget” endeavors, and it’s up to each of us to take charge.

3. Be like you were in kindergarten

“Play nice. Don’t eat other people’s food.”

My cousin is talking about being a good human being, and showing respect in our basic human interactions. It’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget to do in the stress and busy-ness of adulthood.

In fact there’s a great little book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten that reminds us of just this point.

It’s so tempting to get sucked down into the petty competitions and office politics that tend to pit people against each other. But that kind of “zero sum” thinking leads us onto the “low road”.

The reality is that those behaviors and mindsets drag us down. They bring us to the lowest common denominator. They make us less than who we are meant to be as people. This is what leads to waking up one day and not liking ourselves.

Instead, take out that “kindergarten playbook” and set a new example. Be kind. Help others. Lighten up and don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the high road.

You can be ambitious without going overboard on competing. You can understand the politics of the situation without “playing office politics”. You can rise without putting others down.

Look for ways to find mutual benefit. And take on the challenge of being the best person you can be.

One thing that’s not on the list

I was also interested to note what didn’t make the “top 3” list. In particular, being the best in technical skills.

Yes, it’s necessary to have great skills and to be excellent in the technical aspects required for the job. However, that alone is not sufficient, especially beyond the early years.

Once you’ve mastered the technicals, it’s time to round out your experience and capabilities to include a broader set of ways to differentiate yourself and add value. For example, how you work with people, how you develop yourself, and taking a more strategic approach to the business.

How you can get ahead in your career

No matter where we are in our careers, the question is always how can you stand out and get ahead?

One way to do that is to take my cousin’s advice. It sounds simple, and in fact it’s pretty straightforward. What’s less simple is to put the advice into action.

It’s the sum of lots of small decisions you make moment to moment. It’s what you think and do when you think no one’s looking.

So by all means, find that killer app, land that big piece of business, win the coveted award. These are all ways to stand out and get ahead.

But while you’re hunting for those big wins, you can set yourself apart by taking my cousin’s principles:

  • Don’t be a BMW – be a positive, constructive, solutions-oriented professional.
  • Do what you love and love what you do – when you’re energized, you’re in a better position to win.
  • Be like you were in kindergarten – play nice and don’t eat other people’s food.

Being guided by these bigger principles makes it easier to be your best self, and to do your best. And you’ll like yourself better too.

So, which of these principles will you put into action to stand out and get ahead?