He was an inventor with more than 300 patents to his name. He was a college dropout. He was a billionaire who wore jeans to work.

He was one of the world’s great persuaders, coaxing millions of people to try technology they had never considered before. He was an angry perfectionist. He was the world’s best-known corporate chief executive.

He was Steve Jobs.

More than any other business leader of our time, Jobs touched our souls. The computers, phones, music players, movies and software that he and his colleagues devised at Apple Inc. weren’t just marvelous creations in their own right. They were gateways to a future that held genuine promise.

Whether we were eager fans, lining up outside convention halls to hear Jobs speak, or reluctant converts, muttering about our children’s infatuations with iPods, we couldn’t help but be swept up in the Apple founder’s vision. The tributes pouring in after Jobs’s death Wednesday speak to this extraordinary gift.

Another aspect of Jobs’s time on earth, however, deserves a moment’s reflection: the way he died. His pancreatic cancer was diagnosed in 2003, when Jobs was 48. The last eight years of his life were a series of health crises, partial recoveries and dashed hopes. It would have been easy for him to turn bitter, morose or self-destructive about his fate. Yet Jobs rose to new career heights in those final years, while also gracing others with as much compassion as they had ever seen. Although Apple was at times criticized for being closed-mouthed about its leader’s health, Jobs himself faced mortality earlier and more bluntly than most.

‘Life’s Change Agent’

“No one wants to die,” Jobs observed in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. Even so, he declared, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

In his final years at Apple, Jobs spearheaded bold expansions that stretched the company’s identity far beyond computers. But he also did something that most founders can’t: He gradually passed operating control of the company to one of his long-time lieutenants, Tim Cook. The notion of Apple without Jobs -- which once must have seemed like a catastrophe to customers, employees and investors -- is being absorbed with sadness but also with calm. The lesson -- one that was reinforced if you spent time with Jobs and could see a failing body attached to a vibrant, powerful mind -- is that ideas live on. Hardware gives out; software keeps running.

“Stay hungry, stay foolish,” Jobs declared at the end of his 2005 Stanford talk. In reality, Jobs was hardly ever foolish, though he didn’t mind if other people thought he was. But he remained hungry and in pursuit -- of seismic ideas, seamless execution and excellence in all its forms.

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