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Patience, Grasshopper

I know, I know. We live in the age of high-speed Internet, iPods, BlackBerries, and Instant Messenger. We've become accustomed to getting not only what we want, but getting it when we want it. We can get up-to-the-second stock quotes on our cell phone while lounging on the beach in Bermuda, or digitally record our favorite show so we can watch it whenever it's convenient for us. Life ain't bad.

But don't let the impatience of our fast-paced life persuade you to demand instant success from your investments. Alas, in the world of finance, one thing has stayed the same over the years and is virtually certain to remain the same in the future: If you want to do well with your investments, you must have patience, my friend.

One of the biggest problems investors encounter is that they seem to forget what the stock market actually is. It isn't a slot machine. It isn't the lottery. There's no magician pulling money out of a hat. It's just a way for us to own small parts of real businesses. The market should, in theory, perfectly track the value of these businesses, but as we all know, the prices of stocks get bucked around for all sorts of reasons -- many of which have to do with people becoming impatient and demanding short-term results.

Most people don't have the patience to care about what earnings will look like three to five years out; they're concerned only with what the stock is going to do in the next few days or months. Here's some advice: If you find yourself constantly checking stock quotes to see where your investments are trading, find a hobby to keep yourself occupied.

Are we there yet? How about now?
Sure, it would be nice to consistently make money day in and day out. And yes, maybe some top-tier hedge-fund managers like Steve Cohen have been able to exploit small inefficiencies in the market that have produced consistent returns. But such performance is extremely rare. Even the world's top investors, such as Warren Buffett, Mohnish Pabrai, and Eddie Lampert, have undergone downturns in their investments that would have scared the pants off other people, only to be rewarded handsomely after ridiculous amounts of patience led to outsized returns.

Take Buffett, for example. After Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) famous 1973 purchase of Washington Post (NYSE: WPO  ) stock, his $10 million investment fell by more than 20% and sat at that level for nearly three years. Never one to be guided by Mr. Market's irrational moods, Buffett sat patiently, knowing full well that the value of the company far exceeded the quoted share price. Since his purchase more than 34 years ago, Buffett has yet to sell a single share of the Post, and his original $10 million investment is currently worth more than $1 billion. Apparently, patience can indeed be a form of action.

A more recent example comes from value investor Pabrai. In 2002, he began purchasing Universal Stainless & Alloy Products (Nasdaq: USAP  ) at around $15 a share, or less than half of what he calculated the intrinsic value to be. Not one to be tempted by market fluctuations, Pabrai sat back and watched his original investment sink by 67% over the next year. Did he get impatient and sell his investment for a loss? Nope. Instead, he waited until the rest of the market discovered what he had seen all along, and in four years USAP was more than a 10-bagger.

Zen masters at work
Even as we speak, hedge-fund manager and Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) Chairman Eddie Lampert is sitting on sizable unrealized losses from his recent investment in embattled megabank Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) . Pabrai has also sustained eye-popping unrealized losses in his current investments in Delta Financial and CompuCredit (Nasdaq: CCRT  ) . While I certainly can't speak for these respected money managers, my instinct tells me they certainly aren't losing much sleep over it, even if they do turn out to be wrong.

Fools, we all know it can hurt to watch our investments tank, especially when other stocks are going through the roof. Don't let yourself fall into the short-term trap. Oftentimes, the best rewards don't fall in front of us as soon as we demand them.

For related Zen-like Foolishness:

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