Do you hate your job? Wish you were independently wealthy?

I can totally relate. I've had a few jobs that were total soul-sucking grinds, but I had to stick with them because I needed the money and didn't have anything better lined up. With the economy the way it is, and job opportunities so scarce, I think there are a lot of people who can relate to that predicament these days.

But wouldn't it be great if you didn't have to work?

So I should buy lottery tickets then?
If you want to retire early, like really early, what you should be doing is buying stocks.

While the stock market can be a wild ride from time to time, over the very long haul it gains, on average, 10% a year. Compounding over 30 or 40 years, that's a decent return. But it's not going to make you rich anytime soon, especially if you're not in your twenties anymore and don't have decades upon decades to let that money grow.

So what do I do?
If you want to build real wealth sooner than that, you have to do more than buy stocks -- you have to buy a core group of market-beating stocks. You'll still need time to let those investments compound, but you'll need less of it.

Just look at what these stocks would have done with a $1,000 initial investment over just the past 20 years, including the past terrible two:


Value of $1,000 Invested 20 Years Ago

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL)


Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG)


ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)


Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)


American Express (NYSE: AXP)


Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)


Autodesk (Nasdaq: ADSK)


Source: Motley Fool CAPS, Yahoo! Finance. Chart assumes investment on Sept. 18, 1989, held through market close on Sept. 17, 2009, and assumes reinvestment of dividends.

Some stocks did well, while others didn't do so well -- and that's how it sometimes works in real life. But if we had invested $1,000 in each of those seven stocks 20 years ago, we would have turned $7,000 into $131,630.

And while you could do a lot worse than just buying those seven stocks right now, you could probably do a lot better, too.

20 years is still too long -- tell me something better
Take another look at that chart. I included Microsoft to make a point -- sometimes a lot of a portfolio's returns over time are powered by one or two really great holdings. In the case of the portfolio above, more than half of our growth came just from Mr. Softy.

But what if you had four or five really great holdings? Or more?

I'll tell you what: You might not have to wait 20 years.

Now, you won't get those kinds of returns by buying big companies like Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, or even, yes, Microsoft. You get them by buying small caps -- the next Microsofts and Apples, now, while they're still small, while they're still largely unknown, which both Microsoft and Apple were 20 years ago.

So how do I find the next Microsoft?
Now, I won't kid you. Finding the best small-caps is a hard thing to do. It takes lots of research and plenty of sifting and learning, and even then, some of your picks won't pan out.

But if you want the potential for screaming returns over not too much time, if you want a portfolio -- in an IRA or just in a regular brokerage account -- that turns little bucks into big bucks while you're still young enough to really enjoy it, then these up-and-coming small caps are the way to make it happen.

How do you find them? Take your inspiration from the method used by Founding Fool Tom Gardner to find what he calls "hidden gems." Start your search by screening for small companies that are already profitable, that generate free cash flow, and are still value-priced.

In a nutshell, look for companies that have a durable competitive advantage to drive growth, are generating the money to fund it, and are still attractively priced relative to their growth rates.

Those are the stocks that have the potential to pop in big ways, and those are the kinds of stocks that the Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter team specialize in uncovering for their readers.

Is this the part where you try to sell me a newsletter?
No. This is the part where I suggest that you go check out the newsletter (and maybe buy some of their recommended stocks) for free. If you sign up for a free trial of Hidden Gems right now, you get 30 days of full access to all of the service's recommendations, all of the research, the whole deal.

Consider: 30 days is plenty of time to get that brokerage account opened and ready to go. You can review the research that the members of our team have done, get a sense for what kinds of stocks they pick and why, spend some time examining their track record and checking out their recommendations, and -- if you want -- get yourself invested in some of their picks, all without paying a cent.

The upshot
It boils down to this: If you hate your job, becoming independently wealthy is a great ticket out. And wealth starts with a few great investments, right now. If you're young and eager to get rolling, or you just want to juice a slow-growing portfolio, Hidden Gems is the place to go. And you can get full access for 30 days, compliments of the house -- just click here to get started.

Already subscribe to Hidden Gems? Log in at the top of this page.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Apple and Autodesk. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. American Express, Microsoft, and Pfizer are Inside Value recommendations. Procter & Gamble is an Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Autodesk and Procter & Gamble. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.