I don't know about you, but every time I hear one of the talking heads on CNBC say "the market's overvalued" or "the market's oversold," I shake my head in disbelief. How anyone can get an accurate read on the valuation and growth prospects of all 10,000-plus companies in the publicly traded universe, then sum them all up as being "expensive" or "cheap" in a 30-second sound bite, is simply beyond me.

Maybe it's because they're the Wall Street Wise Men and I'm just a simple Fool, but I find it terribly difficult to put a value on more than one company at a time. With an individual company, I can calculate its enterprise value and its growth rate. I can count the cash in its bank account and match that up against the debt on its balance sheet. I can listen to its CEO on the company's earnings conference call and decide that "this sounds like an honest guy" or "this guy's selling snake oil."

But the whole market? Why, the market doesn't even have a CEO.

Market, shmarket
But honestly, it doesn't matter -- I don't intend to invest in "the market," anyway. Why would anyone settle for the average 10.5% annual market returns, knowing that it's possible to make so much more?

Investing legend Peter Lynch, former manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund, earned 29% annual returns for his clients during his tenure there from 1978 to 1990. More recently, Bill Miller, head of the Legg Mason Value Trust, has outrun the S&P's average returns by a full 7% over the past 10 years. And here at The Motley Fool, our own Philip Durell, head analyst for the Inside Value newsletter, is giving Mr. Miller a run for his money. Since Inside Value started, Philip's picks are beating the S&P with a total return of 7%, vs. the market's 1%.

What's the secret to achieving annual investment gains that rival the achievements of some of the greatest investing minds on the planet? Well, in grade school we used to refer to it as "wandering eyes." In business, though, we call it "studying the masters." It means imitating the successful strategies devised by those who've come before us, and constantly tweaking and improving upon them to suit our own style.

Consider a few examples.

Buy what you know
If there's one quote or investment maxim that's most commonly associated with Peter Lynch, it's to invest in companies that you're already intimately familiar with, whose stores you shop in, whose products you use every day. After all, why spend days and weeks researching an unfamiliar company when you have practical knowledge of another? That's the kind of logic that Mr. Lynch followed when buying companies such as Dunkin' Donuts (now part of Allied Domecq (NYSE:AED)), which ultimately made him a multimillionaire. And it's the kind of logic that led us at Inside Value to recommend TurboTax publisher Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU). Considering that the stock has produced 10% gains for our subscribers in just two months, despite the S&P actually losing value over that time period, the logic looks sound.

Seek out hidden value
Some companies are so difficult to comprehend, structured so counterintuitively, that they befuddle and bemuse your ordinary investor. And even a seasoned Wall Street analyst, one suspects, has a hard time making heads or tails of a company like Ford (NYSE:F), which by all accounts makes cars, but which derives all of its profits from banking. Companies that seem to do one thing but actually do another can be terribly difficult to pin a "real value" on. And where few are certain of a company's true worth, you'll find opportunity.

However, true value doesn't remain hidden forever. While legendary economist Eugene Fama may have been overstating the case when he developed his "efficient market" theory, Wall Street will ultimately figure out what any company is really worth, given enough time. The trick in value investing is to beat Wall Street to the punch, to find the value before others do, to buy ahead of the pack, and, ultimately, to be the one holding the shares when the slowpokes from Wall Street come wanting to buy. This may have been the reason behind Bill Miller's purchase of Toys "R" Us (NYSE:TOY) stock when he opened his new "Opportunity Trust" mutual fund in 1999. At the time, most investors considered the company a toy retailer. Yet today, many analysts are coming to view Toys "R" Us more as a real estate play.

Profit from panic
Listen, I love quoting the investing masters as much as any financial writer does. But let me confide a pet peeve to you: I'm tired of abiding by the unwritten rule that the only things worth quoting are things said by men who are either old or, more often, dead. We young'uns come up with the occasional zinger too. For example, take this great quotes by the Fool's own senior investing editor, Bill Mann: "I'd suggest to you that the time to be investing is when everyone else is running away in terror."

Words to live by -- or at least invest by. And they match up with another of the investing philosophies we follow at Inside Value: There's profit to be made in others' panic. When the suits up on Wall Street are running scared, afraid their bosses might catch them owning a stock that's garnering negative headlines in consecutive issues of The Wall Street Journal, they're not thinking too much about the business' fundamentals -- they just want out. Now.

As individual investors, however, we're our own bosses. No one's going to fire you for buying an unpopular stock. Sure, the spouse, kids, coworkers, and neighbors may chuckle a bit at your Foolishness, but if the company is sound, who do you think will have the last laugh?

I suspect there was some amusement among Wall Street's Wise Men when they heard that Bill Miller had bought Career Education (NASDAQ:CECO) for his Opportunity Trust. Dogged by federal regulatory investigations and shareholder lawsuits, it was quite the controversial pick. Philip Durell certainly received his own fair share of tsk-tsking and head-wagging when he picked scandal-tarred Cendant (NYSE:CD) in February. But sometimes you just have to ignore the chuckles and go where the value is. And with Cendant now well into its turnaround phase, restructuring its business to maximize profits -- as Philip argues -- Inside Value members may find themselves sitting on a gold mine by heeding his advice.

Intuit and Cendant -- now you know two of our favorite companies. What will it be next month? Perhaps Interpublic (NYSE:IPG)? Like Cendant, the advertising firm has had its brushes with accounting regulators. Like Cendant, it's in the process of cleaning house and building profits. Rest assured that if there's private value hidden within Interpublic, we'll find it for you -- and you'll know the answer before the pinstripe-and-wingtips crowd has even begun asking the right questions.

Go ahead. Click this link and join us for a free one-month trial on our search for inside value. If you like the service, we'd be proud to have you stay with us as a charter member. If not, cancel and we'll gladly refund the entire unused portion of your subscription. No questions asked. No strings attached. You have our word on it.

This article was first published on Feb. 8, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The value of The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is hard to overestimate.