It's Not a Contest
A few weeks ago, I was in downtown Denver at the conference center, as one of the parent volunteers for the elementary school's Robotics Club. We were there to watch an international robotics competition, where students from around the world had brought along robots they had built to be squared off against each other in various events. We stepped off the school bus and made our way though the various bridges and corridors of the gleaming glass facility. When we arrived outside the right ballroom, we were greeted by one of the teachers from our school district. He addressed our group of 40 kids:
"OK guys, before we go in, I wanted to remind you of one thing. There are two types of people in the world today: those who create technology, and those who consume it. Only one of those groups gets to cash the check, the other has to write it. Apple Computer didn't get to be the richest company in the world by buying a bunch of phones - they had to do the hard work to develop those phones. 
So when you go into this room, I want you to look at the teams and where they are from. You'll notice most of them are from Asia. Because over there, they take this stuff - science, technology, engineering, and math - much more seriously than we do. The kids your age are already starting calculus, and they program their own robots and do events like this every weekend. They are way ahead of us, and in a global world, it's blah blah blah…"
At this point I tuned out, because I could see where the guy was going and I think he was missing the bigger picture. But I was happy to add his little speech to my collection of stories about the common theme of artificially imposed competitive worry. These scary little talks pop up in all areas of life, and with them we are creating a dog-eat-dog world in the middle of a very comfortable and well-appointed dog food factory.
You'll see this phenomenon in varying degrees in the school system: At one end of it, my own family has become curious about the hippy free-for-all concept of  Unschooling , while traditional schooling methods are more rigorous. And the trend seems to intensify in the Northeastern United States, where many of the wealthier residents are afflicted with  Ivy League Preschool Syndrome ). Further East, the Indian and Asian cultures value education highly, but often under a very strict regime of long hours, reduced leisure, rote memorization and a focus on competition.
Unfortunately this phenomenon does not end on graduation day. The nature of large-scale capitalism is competition and survival of the fittest, which I believe can be a good thing overall*. But when you apply constant competition on the level of individual humans in a win-lose battle, the results are not nearly as good.
Most of us seem to come pre-packaged with a desire for  more.  If something is good, more of it must be better. A 4-cylinder car provides amazing transportation options, so people naturally try to get more of that amazement by buying 8-cylinder trucks. A few square feet of interior space is a very useful form of shelter, so given the resources some of us will amass tens of thousands of these square feet.
But the phenomenon of  more  extends even further than material conveniences. It leaks right into the way we live our lives and perceive our value as human beings. If you enjoy your job, you may find yourself advancing relentlessly until you become the CEO. If you own a business, you might find yourself growing it just because the customers and the money are there and you don't want to waste the opportunity. But what if higher status and higher income were not the things you really needed to achieve a happier life? You would end up trading precious time and life for something that really delivers no value to you, because you had enough in the first place.
Some people call this tendency  mindless accumulation.  This bad habit is built right into us, as you may have seen