You may not know this, but stocks and subways have something in common.

Back when I lived in Boston, a ride on the "T" cost $0.85. That bought one token, and that's all it took to enter the system. Once inside, with a couple of exceptions on lines that left Boston and went out into the suburbs, you didn't have to pay again. It didn't matter whether you went two stops or 20, whether you went a few blocks or rode all the way from Southie to Somerville (a long trip by Boston standards) -- one token was what it cost you.

Even if they were just looking to avoid a few blocks' walk in nasty weather, people were usually willing to spend a token to get to where they wanted to go. I don't remember ever hearing anyone complain that they didn't get their money's worth because they didn't ride all the way from one end of the Red Line to the other.

So why do people put so much effort into trying to ride stocks from the absolute bottom to the top?

What if that was the bottom?
I hear an awful lot of people saying that they're waiting to buy stocks until the market hits bottom. That's a great idea in theory, but will they really be able to tell when that happens? While I personally suspect that we'll see new lows before this bear is done with us, as Fool Amanda Kish suggested yesterday, I don't actually know. Neither does anyone else.

There's a reason that market timing is so rarely a winning strategy -- the future is hard to predict! It's possible that things will get a lot worse, that the S&P 500 will drop to 600 or lower. It's also possible that the market will muddle around current levels for a while and then start to trend upward, as some money managers are predicting.

If you're one of those folks waiting for the bottom, you might have already missed it. But here's some good news: It doesn't matter.

Keep your destination in mind
Lots of people have made market-beating money on Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) in recent years despite buying at well above the $8 price the stock hit in 2002. Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) was a good buy at $3.48 when Fool co-founder David Gardner first recommended it to Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers in 2002 -- notwithstanding the fact that it dipped below $2 several months later. And plenty of Fools feel it's still a good buy at under $9 now.

You don't have to buy at the bottom to beat the market. Likewise, you don't have to sell at the top. If you bought Innophos (NASDAQ:IPHS) at $13 a year ago but failed to sell when the stock topped $40 this past summer, you're probably kicking yourself. But you're still up more than 50% at today's prices. Our brains naturally focus on the missed opportunity to gain more, but if we keep our long-term goal in mind -- to outperform the market -- selling today would still represent a huge success.

Several professional Fools and CAPS community members like well-run spicy-chicken pusher Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD) at today's prices, well above the sub-$15 levels we saw briefly in November. Likewise, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is up about 30% from its November lows, but when viewed as a long-term proposition it still looks awfully cheap to many.

And that's the key: Think long-term.

The power of time
The great investing heroes, people like Warren Buffett and Sir John Templeton, have all preached a long-term view. If you're thinking of adding a stock such as Buffett-like insurer Markel (NYSE:MKL), or commercial real estate whiz Jones Lang Lasalle (NYSE:JLL), you're probably not thinking in terms of a six- or 12-month hold. You're probably thinking in terms of years, maybe a lot of years. I'm taking a look at buying both, and I'm thinking of them as very-long-haul holdings -- 20 years or more.

In the context of a decade or three, when you can expect a great stock to return several times your initial investment, 10%-20% on your initial purchase price doesn't make a whole lot of difference. "Buy low and sell high" is the route to investment success. Buying Apple at $20 in 2000 -- even though it went lower -- would have brought you lots of success. Google at $330 might not be the steal that Google at $250 was, but it could still end up being the kind of crazy-cheap bargain my grandkids will boggle at 40 years from now.

We may not be at the absolute bottom -- whether it's behind us or ahead of us -- but there are a lot of bargains out there right now. Founding Fools David and Tom Gardner and their team at Motley Fool Stock Advisor are working hard to find the best of them. And one of the stocks they recommend in their newest issue is exactly the kind of stock I've been talking about here.

It's a fantastic company, one that looks poised for a decade or more of tremendous growth. While it's well above its recent lows, it still seems like quite a bargain. Want to check it out? A free trial gives you 30 days of full access to the Stock Advisor service, with no obligation to subscribe. Click now.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Apple. Jones Lang Lasalle and Buffalo Wild Wings are Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendations. Markel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Activision Blizzard and Apple are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Markel and Buffalo Wild Wings. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.