Investing isn't easy. Even Warren Buffett counsels that most investors should invest in a low-cost index like the S&P 500. That way, "you'll be buying into a wonderful industry, which in effect is all of American industry," he says.

But there are, of course, companies whose long-term fortunes differ substantially from the index. In this series, we look at how individual stocks have performed against the broad S&P 500.

Step on up, CenturyLink (NYSE:CTL).

CenturyLink shares have easily outperformed the S&P 500 over the last quarter-century:

Ctl Sp

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Since 1987, shares have returned an average of 14.8% a year, compared with 9.7% a year for the S&P (both include dividends). One thousand dollars invested in the S&P in 1987 would be worth $19,200 today. In CenturyLink, it'd be worth $82,900.

Dividends accounted for a lot of those gains. Compounded since 1987, dividends have made up 21% of CenturyLink's returns. For the S&P, dividends account for 39% of total returns.

Now, have a look at how CenturyLink earnings compare with S&P 500 earnings:

Ctl Earnings

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Some underperformance here, driven by a drop last year. Since 1995, CenturyLink's earnings per share have grown by an average of 4.5% a year, compared with 6% a year growth for the broader index.

What's that meant for valuations? CenturyLink has traded for an average of 17 times earnings since 1987 -- below the 24 times earnings for the broader S&P 500.

Through it all, shares have been strong performers over the last quarter-century.

Of course, the important question is whether that will continue. That's where you come in. Our CAPS community currently ranks CenturyLink with a four-star rating (out of five). Care to disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, or add CenturyLink to My Watchlist

Motley Fool Staff has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.