I took my first investing class as a teenager, and one moment stands out in my memory. A fellow student asked the instructor, a stock broker, about dividends.

"Dividends?" he asked. "I'm trying to make my clients wealthy. You don't do that waiting for tiny checks in the mailbox every quarter."

Even then, I had enough horse sense to know he was wrong. Paying attention to dividends is exactly how you become wealthy over time.

Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel made a wonderful discovery in his book The Future for Investors. The greatest long-term returns typically don't come from the most innovative companies, or even companies with the highest earnings growth. They come from companies that happen to crank out dividends year after year. Simply put, since the 1950s, "the portfolios with higher dividend yields offered investors higher returns."

Market commentary regularly centers around price gyrations, yet dividends have historically accounted for more than half of total returns.

Reinvest those dividends, and your results become even greater. Take VF (NYSE: VFC), for example. Since the late 1960s, VF's shares have increased some 6,400%. But add in reinvested dividends, and total returns jump to a staggering 26,500%:

Vfc

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

There's no ambiguity here: Over time, VF's share appreciation alone has paled in importance to the power of its reinvested dividends. Reinvested dividends skew other apparel giants Gap's (NYSE: GPS) and Nike's (NYSE: NKE) long-term returns dramatically higher, too. If you're a long-term shareholder, don't worry about daily share wobbles. Devote your attention those dividend payouts, and your commitment to reinvest them.

How do VF's dividends look? The company has paid a dividend every year since 1986, growing that payout at an average annual rate of 9%. Its current yield -- 2.3% -- is in line with market averages. Over the past five years, VF's dividend has used up an average of 40% of its free cash flow -- a level that keeps it fairly safe from impending cuts and provides breathing room for future growth.

To earn the greatest returns, get your priorities straight. What the market does is less important than what your company earns. What your company earns is less important than how much it pays out in dividends. And what it pays out in dividends is less important than whether you reinvest those dividends.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Gap. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Nike. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Nike. 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.