Have you ever wondered why the great investors succeed where most fail? Having extensive financial knowledge helps, of course. But so too does recognizing how our financial system rewards certain types of behavior and penalizes others.

It is an oft-quoted statistic that the majority of mutual funds underperform the unmanaged S&P 500 index. The reality is a little more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that fees and taxes conspire to handicap mutual fund managers and drag down their performance. This is not surprising, since the average mutual fund turns over its entire portfolio once per year.

It gets even a little worse for the average consumer of mutual funds because they tend to move their money from fund to fund, chasing last year's big performer. But Princeton University professor Burton Malkiel's research shows that the top-performing funds from one year tend to underperform the market in subsequent years. So the moment the population notices the fund and floods money into it, the fund's performance falters.

They're not terrible investors
The problem with many funds is manifold, but it's concentrated on three elements: overtrading, expenses, and the institutional imperative. Fortunately, as individual investors, we can use the system to our advantage. By and large, mutual fund managers have to play a game, and we don't. In this case, not playing means winning. Unfortunately, most individual investors fail "not to play."

1. Don't overtrade. For all the howling that buy-and-hold investing is dead, I believe this is the method of investing that makes the most sense. This past week, someone told me he was disappointed in CryptoLogic's (NASDAQ:CRYP) one-week, 15% move, and he was going to look for a stock with more action. The moment he sells, he will spend trading commissions -- both direct and indirect -- and he will trigger a taxable event of a minimum of 15% of his profits (and I'm guessing much higher). Holding a stock for a long time means delaying those taxes and allowing that money to work for you longer. Of course, not every company deserves to be held (or even bought, for that matter). But look at this:

Buying and holding NatusMedical (NASDAQ:BABY) over the past two years would have generated a gain of 375%. If you had bought at the low of 2004 and sold at the high, and then did the same in 2005 and 2006 (selling Friday), your post-tax gains are 338%. Hitting both the exact high and low three years in a row is pretty unlikely, and you still underperform just holding.

2. Avoid the institutional imperative. The awesome reality for individual shareholders is that there are no institutional imperatives. You're not going to get fired as manager of your own money just because you don't own Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) like everybody else. Institutional investors are judged quarterly, and if they trail their peers, they'd better have a good excuse. It's in their best interest, then, to hold the same companies everyone else does. Buy Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) at its recent initial public offering (IPO) along with everyone else, and you're fine even if it drops. Be the only fund manager holding PXRE (NYSE:PXT) when it hit the wall, and that's a firin' offense.

As an individual investor, you don't have to play that game. In fact, you shouldn't. Recognize that the talking heads on CNBC are trying to sell you stocks. Recognize that there are glamour companies -- like last year's Travelzoo (NASDAQ:TZOO) -- that, like almost every fad, eventually fade. Find your own way and ignore the stocks that seem to be the must-own equities. That way be dragons.

3. Fish where the fish are. As has been described many times, fund managers have certain limitations. Perhaps they have so much money to invest that shares in a promising $100 million company, like Utah Medical Products (NASDAQ:UTMD), wouldn't even budge the needle. Or perhaps they can't buy shares that trade for less than $10, or that trade overseas, or have low levels of liquidity. Whatever the reason, being smaller, you can move where they cannot. Take advantage of this! As for me, my Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter service focuses on small-cap companies, ones that generally show low institutional interest, companies too small for many funds to buy. We're fishing where there is less competition -- which almost can't help but improve our odds.

The Foolish bottom line
But remember what I said at the beginning. It wasn't that we can crush mutual fund returns. It was this: Most fail. Most investors, unfortunately, don't know where to look for companies without counting on the hottest of the hot. Most investors don't know how to be patient, and they don't recognize that the market doesn't particularly care what they paid for a company, that things happen on their own time, and that great companies should be treated as great treasure. This is not to say that the few don't make their share of mistakes. Wow, believe me, they -- and we -- do. But disciplined investing almost cannot help increasing your odds at long-term success, and in this realm, the reward for success is pretty sweet indeed.

Bill Mann misplaced his funk in 1998 and has had to rent one ever since. He does not hold any of the companies mentioned in this article. CryptoLogic is a recommendation of the Hidden Gems newsletter. Bill would like to invite you to join Tom Gardner and him free for 30 days to explore some of the truly great opportunities in the realm of the small cap. The two newest picks were released today at 12 noon EST. Fool disclosure rules are here.