Where were you in August 1994, and what were you doing? When I tell you where I was, you may not believe it (of course, you have to read to the end to find out).

Were you at least buying stocks?
I wasn't. I sure wasn't gambling 1,800 bucks on a company I'd never heard of. But somebody was, and he was about to make a lot of money. I know this for two reasons.

First, that one trade made this guy a local celebrity. Second, the Fool told us exactly what he was going to do, before he went long, and then tracked his returns online in real time.

Five years later, the shares he bought for a split-adjusted $0.46 crested atop $50. Before you could say "Mad Money," Money.com called the guy "among the most widely followed stock market advisors in the world," and his $1,800 stake ballooned to $190,000.

Yes, you read that right
That stock was America Online -- and that guy was Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner. Granted, we were in a massive bull market, and that helps. But it doesn't explain everything. The fact is, David saw a first-mover in an emerging industry that was destined to change everything -- and had the guts to buy it.

Yes, the stock has been pounded since, but this may surprise you: David's AOL investment is still up. If you'd bought AOL with him, you'd be up 1,543%. If you caught a wave that was already building and bought another tech titan such as Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) or even Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) instead, you'd be up roughly 2,300% or 1,181%, respectively.

As remarkable as it sounds, you could have rolled the dice on old-school IBM (NYSE:IBM) or Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO), a tech darling held up as a poster child for the tech-stock bubble, and you still would have out-performed most "alternative" non-equity investments, including Molybdenum (whatever that is).

Maybe that doesn't surprise you ...
But it sure surprised me. In fact, as this painful bear market grinds on, it's got me revisiting two long-held beliefs. The first led to an affirmation of sorts. The second was an epiphany. First, the affirmation.

At my age, I have to invest. For me, that means buying stocks, whether the market looks overvalued or cheap -- and not selling. That last part goes double whenever I manage to catch lightning in a bottle, like David did with AOL in 1994. And it does happen.

In fact, AOL wasn't the only home run in David's original Rule Breaker portfolio. He also bought Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) and Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) in 1998 -- two other home run stocks. But take away that one 1,543% winner, and David looks downright human, right? Maybe not. More on that just ahead.

But first, the epiphany!
Slow and steady may not win the race. As you may know, I typically side with David's stodgy brother Tom, who insists there is money to be made on tried-and-true cash machines like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), and data supporting Warren Buffett's steady-as-she-goes, win-by-rarely losing value approach.

But I wonder: What if David's right to point out that we don't always have to get on base. Most nights, we only need a few big swings to win the game? What if he's right to point out that even if nine out of every 10 stocks we buy goes to absolute zero, we'll still break even if we find just one 10-bagger?

Well, it's true. Plus, what are the chances nine out of 10 of our companies will go belly up? Not too good. And that's assuming we land a single 10-bagger -- a rock-solid 1,000% gainer.

Because I have news for you ...
"The Tortoise and the Hare" isn't a true story. It's not even based on one. Take away AOL, Starbucks, and Amazon ... and David's pretty average. But that's crazy talk. You don't compare the batting average of a singles hitter with that of a slugger.

The fact is, David's kamikaze style works over the long run. And not just in the '90s. A few years back, David launched a new Rule Breakers newsletter to see if he could find this decade's great growth stories. How's he going to do it? He starts with a six-point checklist:

  1. Top dog and first-mover in an important, emerging industry?
  2. Sustainable advantage?
  3. Strong past price appreciation?
  4. Good management with smart backing?
  5. Strong consumer appeal?
  6. Has it been called overvalued by the media?

A stock with all six traits is a Rule Breaker in the making. You see, David's never been about eking out a few points over the market. He's about hitting a handful of home runs and walking off into the sunset. Does that take guts? Sure, but I've seen him at work for a long time, and he's proved himself to me.

Want to get a few home runs in your portfolio? You can use David's six-point checklist to get started, but here's a better idea. You can take a free trial to David's Motley Fool Rule Breakers service. That way you can sample the complete service for one month without paying a cent and take a peek at all of David's recommendations right away. To learn more about this free trial, click here.

This article was first published May 31, 2007. It has been updated.

In 1994, Paul Elliott was writing bad poetry and banging around the Midwest in a Ford Econoline. He owns Johnson & Johnson, a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon are Stock Advisor recommendations. Dell and Starbucks are Inside Value picks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks. You can see all of David Gardner's Rule Breakers picks and his entire scorecard with your 30-day free trial. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.