At The Motley Fool, we write for all kinds of investors. Whether you've been investing for 50 years, five years, or five minutes, you're equally welcome here.

Of course, that necessarily means that some of the topics we write about are going to seem pretty elementary for some of our readers. Newcomers to investing, on the other hand, may find that even our most basic insights into investing are revelations. Today, I'm going to tackle a topic that longtime Fools will find painfully obvious. But obvious or not, it bears repeating.

The yin and yang of averages
The financial media are all the time mentioning "the average." The average stock does this. The S&P 500 does that. But think for a moment on what "the average" really means.

It's a composite, made up of good companies and bad. Profit makers and money losers. When we say that, on average, the stock market goes up 10% in value per year over long periods of time, that's true. And it's the reason why we advocate investing your long-term savings in the common stocks of public companies, as opposed to buying bonds or depositing your cash in a passbook savings account. Over the long term, stock investing is simply the best way to grow your money, ensure your retirement, and create wealth to hand down to your children and grandchildren.

But remember, we're talking about averages here. If 10% is the average return from the stock market, that means that for every company that exceeds the mark, there's another that falls short. When that happens, to push the average back up to the, well, average, it takes a steady outperformer like Deere (NYSE:DE) to come along and lend a hand.

You get the point. There are good and bad companies out there. Put 'em together, and they create the average performance.

Ain't nothing wrong with being normal
Now, there's nothing wrong with being average. If you've got better things to do with your time than grow your money to the maximum extent possible -- more power to you. You can do just fine as an investor and never have to spend a minute of your life reading a balance sheet by just saving regularly and investing your savings in an S&P index fund. Put your money in there day in and day out, and let it quietly grow until you retire.

Other investors, however, simply are not willing to settle for average returns. If we know it's possible to do better than the average with a little bit of effort, that prospect lures us like the Siren's call. At Motley Fool Stock Advisor, we're aiming to find and invest in only the "good" companies, to cut the losers whose dead weight drags all index funds -- and so many mutual funds -- back down to the average.

If you think Wall Street is in Lake Wobegon, you're all wet
There's no such thing as a fund composed entirely of "above average" companies. Not in Garrison Keillor's fabled Minnesota town. Certainly not among the index funds. And not in actively managed mutual funds, either.

So we repeat: If you want to beat the average, you need to invest in the common stocks of individual companies. To avoid the bad ones. To pick only the good ones. To free yourself to rise above the mundane. But how, precisely, do you know which companies will perform better than the average?

Excellent question
And here's the answer. There's no guarantee. (Sorry, that's not what you wanted to hear, was it?)

But let me finish. There's no guarantee any company that appears to be a good investment will, in fact, succeed. Over the past three years, many investors have looked on Dell as a can't-miss, sure-thing performer. A stock that didn't know the meaning of "down." Until a few weeks ago, that is, when the company underwhelmed Wall Street with its earnings forecast and dropped 9% in a day.

If a fine company like Dell, one that has rewarded shareholders for more than a decade, can take a multibillion-dollar hit with so little warning, then there are certainly no guarantees in this business. There are, however, ways to maximize your chances of success. And one way is to seek out companies that produce better-than-average numbers. Literally.

Here's your cheat sheet
But for that, you need to know what the average numbers are. To get those, click right here. You can improve your investing "percentage" -- the likelihood that any given stock will exceed the average -- by comparing your prospects to this list and investing in companies with one (or preferably more) superior metrics.

For example, right now the average S&P 500 company sports a return on equity (ROE) of 20%. It's priced at 18 times free cash flow (FCF) and 20 times trailing 12 months' earnings. It's expected to grow those earnings at just under 13%. (And for those of you punching away at your calculators, yes, the average company is therefore selling at a PEG of roughly 1.5, and so is, by traditional metrics, overpriced.) Finally, the average company pays a historically tiny 2% dividend.

Let's compare those numbers to a few prospective investments among, for example, homebuilders threatened by the "housing bubble":

Company ROE P/E P/FCF Growth
Rate
Dividend
Centex (NYSE:CTX) 28% 8 neg. 15%

0.3%

D.R. Horton (NYSE:DHI) 30% 9 neg. 15% 1.0%
KB Home (NYSE:KBH) 30% 10 neg. 15% 1.1%
Lennar (NYSE:LEN) 27% 10 neg. 15% 1.1%
Pulte (NYSE:PHM) 27% 9 neg. 13% 0.2%
Ryland (NYSE:RYL) 35% 10 neg. 13% 0.3%
S&P 500 Average 20% 20 18 13% 2%
*All data as reported on Yahoo! Finance.

You'll find several lessons in the above chart. For one thing, from a GAAP earnings standpoint, each of the companies in this sector seems to operate more efficiently than the "average" company -- across the board, their returns on equity are simply stellar. Analysts also expect most of these companies to pose above-average growth.

But notice the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios -- for some reason, the market is not valuing these companies as if they are likely to achieve the projected growth rates. Moreover, none of the six homebuilders has generated positive free cash flow over the past 12 months. That fact, and the widely held belief that housing is a "cyclical" industry prone to sudden downturns and consequent unprofitability, may explain why these businesses are also so stingy with their cash -- they may be needing it soon.

Overall, these are not the kinds of companies that we would be inclined to recommend in Motley Fool Stock Advisor. Cheap but risky doesn't interest us. We seek out only the best businesses for our subscribers -- companies that have superior returns on equity and low P/Es and the kind of consistent, healthy free cash flows that enable them to pay generous dividends, buy back stock, and grow their businesses. This strategy has served our members well. While the S&P 500 has gained 17% in value since the newsletter started a little more than three years ago, Stock Advisor picks are up by better than three times that amount -- an average of 58%.

If you'd like to see how we do it, and take a look at some of the companies that have helped us to rack up these market-beating returns, you're in luck. We've just begun offering a free 30-day trial to Stock Advisor. Click here, and you'll receive unlimited access not just to our upcoming issue and new recommendations, but to our archive and research on every company we've recommended over the past three years. There's no obligation to subscribe after your free trial is up, and if not absolutely thrilled with the service, you can cancel at any time.

This article was originally published on April 20, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no beneficial interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Dell is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool'sdisclosure policyis anything but average.