My friend swears he's learned his lesson.

Back in July 1995, this friend -- let's call him Charlie -- bought Microsoft at what turned out to be the highest price it would see that year. The stock was down 15% in no time, and Charlie was worried. He was smart enough to know the market is the best wealth-creating machine available to us regular folks, but stocks to him were sort of like husbands to Elizabeth Taylor. He liked them well enough, but he tended to give up when things got a little rocky.

In a matter of weeks his paper loss was approaching 25%, and he couldn't stand it anymore. He bailed out.

Needless to say, the next few years were even rougher on Charlie as he watched Mr. Softy march steadily higher. It achieved 10-bagger status at the height of the bull market in 2000, but even today -- in another brutal market -- it's more than 250% higher than when he sold.

The ups come with downs
As Tom and David Gardner tell their Motley Fool Stock Advisor members, you have to expect significant dips from some of your stocks, and you must remain firm if you've done your homework. Otherwise, you sort of screw up that legendary investing formula by buying high and selling low.

This table should really drive home the point for you. Look at these true all-star performers from the past decade -- a period in which the S&P 500 is down over 30%:

Company

10-Year Gain

Largest Drop

Celgene (NASDAQ:CELG)

2,651%

82%

XTO Energy (NYSE:XTO)

2,108%

64%

Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK)

868%

82%

Valero (NYSE:VLO)

306%

79%

Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA)

706%

89%

Denbury (NYSE:DNR)

1,381%

83%

Leucadia National (NYSE:LUK)

284%

80%

Returns adjusted for dividends.

The largest drop for some of these companies happened in the current bear market, but this is a lesson that practically all of the great performers from the past decades have dropped at least 25% at one time or another. It would be very hard for you to find one that hasn't.

The current market is a painful reminder of that. And hey, I'll be the first to admit that many stocks drop 25% and keep dropping. That can happen when a business that has no real competitive advantages to begin with gets the rug pulled out from under it. It happened to me several years ago, and like a shell-shocked boxer, I still duck when I hear the name CMGI. (Shudder.)

Lesson learned
We've all learned some things throughout the years. But if, as Tom Gardner says, you can invest for decades, add money to your existing holdings steadily over time, and stay committed to focusing on truly great businesses, you stand to make a fortune -- especially in the fear-based environment of the current market.

For the six years since Stock Advisor was launched, Tom and David Gardner's recommendations have beaten the S&P 500 by an average of 41 percentage points. Interested in finding out which stocks to start with? Try a no-obligation 30-day free trial and you'll see Tom and David's five best buys for new money now. Here's more information.

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This article was originally published on Jan. 8, 2007. It has been updated.

Rex Moore lathers and rinses, but never repeats. Of the companies mentioned in this article, he owns shares of Microsoft. Leucadia National and NVIDIA are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Microsoft and Chesapeake Energy are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.